The Art of the Eco-Argument: From Self Righteousness to Positive Reinforcement

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Search "thermostat chicken" on TreeHugger, and all you will find is a brief mention in Christine's post on the thermodynamics of toilet use. Yet I know from previous conversations that my fellow TreeHuggers are not averse to this game, so beloved by environuts the world over. And the season is fast approaching. For those who haven't played - thermostat chicken is a term used for the practice of avoiding heating in winter, or cooling in summer, and competing - implicitly or explicitly - with other household members to see who can hold out the longest. The first to turn it up (or down) is the loser - and obviously doesn't love the planet. But thermostat chicken is just one manifestation of the eco-argument - or the ways that we interact with our lovers, family members, housemates, friends or even complete strangers to influence each others behavior to the greener. The question is - does it help? We all do it - and usually over different "pet causes". Nagging your partner because they forgot the reusable bags, scolding the kids for leaving the lights on, or moaning to housemates about the sorry state of the recycling bin. We even do it outside the home too - proclaiming our own ethical stance on certain issues to friends, and even strangers, in the hope they will come over to our way of thinking.

I've always been in two minds about this kind of behavior. On the one hand it can be a great way to push each other further - encouraging a cultural shift, however small, toward a cleaner, greener way of doing things. On the other hand, as I've noted before, it can come across as ridiculous eco-snobbery - especially when opinions differ about the relative importance of an activity.

Does it really make sense, for example, for someone who flies around the world regularly to pass judgment on another for having kids (or vice versa). Can somebody complain about a cyclist's use of plastic bags, when they themselves drove to the store? Can a vegan that lives in the country criticize a town-dwelling grassfed meat eater? The answer, of course, is yes they can - this is a free society after all. But I'm not convinced it's a good idea.

All too often, these arguments seem to be more about one person feeling better about their own actions, than any serious belief they will change someone else's mind. I have a recurring fear of the environmental movement sitting in yurts at the end of the world - congratulating each other because they weren't the ones who ruined the climate. It's not enough to be right. We have to win too.

Often the trick is in how we do it. If we can find common goals - particularly with people we love and trust - and keep pushing each other on, then the 'game' becomes a positive reinforcement for everybody. And if we can't find common goals, then at least finding a lightness in how we remind each other about our 'transgressions' can help. My wife and I have a common refrain to each other - "You don't love the planet" - each time we see the other doing something we personally find ungreen. Usually it's in jest - and is taken as such - and that's when it can be effective. But as soon as it becomes one upmanship or point scoring, the game is already lost for everyone.

And as for passing on your judgments to strangers - or even acquaintances - that's a slippery slope that I recommend leaving well alone. Beyond seeing someone dumping trash in the street, or pouring raw sewage into the river, I suspect that accosting folks to question their behavior (as has happened to me on more than one occasion) is a non-starter. It's better (and safer!) to put your efforts into gentle persuasion, encouragement, and inspiration on the personal level, and save the heavier tactics for wider political and social change.

So what are your favorite eco-arguments? How do you keep them productive and positive? Or am I being too gentle - is there a place for scolding the person next to you in the grocery aisle? I'd love to hear your thoughts - but be gentle on me. I'm not used to conflict.

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