15 OCTOBER 2019

Don't show me your paper straw, show me you care.

This article was published on my Medium profile.

Eco-perfection’s time is up. What began as an expectation among environmentalists, then became a mass trend with a #zerowaste shelf popping up in every organic store. But as it has grown, it has become a vehicle for shame, a method of exhaustion, and ultimately a generator for futility and frustration. Many of us have been on this journey with it.

Mine began almost five years ago when I started to understand the impact of my diet on the planet. Then it deepened when I learnt about the global food waste and landfill crises; then I read a book about rising sea levels and the inherent racism that underpins the climate crisis. All of which lead me to a militant approach to conscious living that preached environmentalism at every turn.

I wrote off colleagues who forgot their reusable coffee cup, let baristas know that it was unacceptable for my iced chai latte to come with a plastic straw, grilled my parents for their old-school recycling habits and shamed my friends for eating meat. I was on a crusade.

But my crusade came from a good place. One less coffee cup in landfill is a good thing and indeed keeping waste out of our environment is crucial. A plant-based diet is the single biggest thing we can do as individuals to reduce our carbon footprint and recycling products to give them a second life is a better last resort than sending our stuff to the dump. But the problem was in the delivery, in the perfection that I expected of myself and those around me.

Eventually, it became apparent that many of the people in my community were changing their behaviour to please (or even silence) me. It was superficial change that didn’t come from a place of understanding and desire, it came from frustration and surrender.

And underneath my crusade was bubbling shame from whenever I encountered unavoidable plastic, made an online purchase, or forgot my tote bag. This feeling is neither desirable to the masses or sustainable to even the dogmatic few.

My approach was naive and ultimately misinformed.

Eco-perfection is futile because perfection is unattainable. We are all environmental hypocrites. Even though I ride a bicycle and eat a plant-based diet, I have taken multiple non-critical flights in the past couple of months, ridden in Ubers, and I type this on a Macbook while an electric fan blows away the hot afternoon air. It’s impossible to live modern life without leaving a trail of consumption and destruction.

The environmental movement has been plagued by the creation of compostable Q-tips and new and improved!! reusable coffee cups that no one needs. But the change we need won’t come from that place. What we really need is a mass shift of consciousness in how we engage with the system.

The start of October marked the beginning of an international climate rebellion, a two-week global display of mass civil disobedience and non-violent direct action. The rebellion is in response to the decades of by-the-book climate activism that has fallen on deaf ears in government and big business. So brave rebels are glueing themselves to the streets, chaining themselves to structures and picketing the worst perpetrators of the climate crisis. Anything to get governments to listen.

Ironically, eco-perfection has been one of the loudest criticisms of the rebels’ movement. “I bet they all use an oven to cook their food in”, “I see a plastic water bottle, hypocrites!”, “I bet they all have phones”. Again, and even when toted by people who clearly aren’t willing to try something different in order to preserve the environment, eco-perfection is wildly unhelpful.

Expecting eco-perfection from activists is a dismissive tactic. It takes the focus away from the issue at hand and hones in on minute details that, when criticised, aim only to distract. It allows people to make excuses for their inaction or lack of moral agency, writing off those who stand for something in the process.

In the face of the most defining issue of this century, and certainly our lifetimes, we need thousands of people to take to the streets, perfect or not.

Eco-perfection stops us in our tracks. When perpetuated by us, it stifles progress and breeds exhaustion. When perpetuated by them it delegitimises us, and takes focus away from what we’re trying to achieve. It hurts us from every angle.

We will never have enough eco-perfectionists to slow the climate breakdown, but we might get enough imperfect environmentalists on board to make deep, long lasting change. A small number of eco-perfectionists will never achieve the same impact as a large number of imperfect people giving change a red hot crack.

Georgia Gibson. 2019.