At times, hypocrisy is the best we can do.

Photo: Deer running in a field.

At onearth, David Gessner tells of paddling down the Charles River with environmentalist Dan Driscoll as he talks of the need for “hypocrites” in the green movement:

“We nature lovers are hypocrites of course,” Dan says. “We are all hypocrites. None of us are consistent. The problem is that we let that fact stop us. We worry that if we fight for nature, people will say ‘But you drive a car’ or ‘You fly a lot’ or ‘You’re a consumer, too.’ And that stops us in our tracks. It’s almost as if admitting that we are hypocrites gets people off the hook….We need hypocrites who aren’t afraid of admitting it but will still fight for the environment. We don’t need some sort of pure movement run by pure people. We need hypocrites!”

Gessner promotes a “sloppy” environmentalism — “An army of flawed and sloppy hypocrites” — one that I presume lacks the grander drama of saints and villains, instead fitting the contradictory nature of the human kind.

Hypocrite has several meanings, including a person whose behavior opposes her stated beliefs (Driscoll & Gessner’s notion), or someone who carries a false appearance of being virtuous. Yet it is the original meaning given by the Greeks — a deficiency in a person’s ability to decide — that is the kind of hypocrite I believe would benefit from a sloppy environmentalism. This latter concept of hypocrite describes many people as they try to care about nature while fulfilling other responsibilities, desires, and needs. We need a sloppy environmentalism, because frankly, given the demands taxing our “green” choices, sloppy may be the best many of us can do.

It isn’t a coincidence that around the time the Industrial Revolution got underway the push for rational choice also gained momentum, and choosing green means dismantling both. These centuries-old models of society and mind pushed modernity along, but now they contribute to stalled efforts to protect the environment — and both ignore the larger ecosystems of nature and psyche. The industrial revolution marked not just the denial of the interconnectivity of all life, but also introduced rhetoric that disregards the environmental degradation and risks that are the unavoidable scourge of industries and technologies — despite their portrayal as self-contained, closed systems. Similarly, depicting humans as basically rational beings ignores the larger “ecosystem” of the human organism and how emotions, the imagination, the body as well as cognition determine our mental states and behavior.

The failure to witness interconnectedness causes splits in society and mind, and instills the need to dissociate awareness of one realm in order to function properly in another. Even mundane attempts at straddling multiple social worlds — and their conflicting roles and responsibilities — leads to choices that can sideline the desire to go green. The prevalence of addictions, compulsive habits, and other psychological defenses also tests the belief that rational choice will get us to a greener world. Gessner reminisces about Edward Abbey — “I think of Ed Abbey fighting for the West while throwing empty beer cans out the window of his truck” — and I wonder if this is an example of how addiction kept even the most ardent environmentalist at times a bit sloppy.

If we judge a person’s commitment to the environment in terms of actions alone, we risk missing what drives the failure to consistently take steps that conserve resources — the ever-shifting emotional landscape that is common of fractured minds living in equally fractured societies. Consider sociologist Simon Gottschalk’s picture of the emotional life of the typical postmodern person: “rapidly shifting intensities which oscillate between complete indifference and passionate involvement, between intense idealization and devaluation, between terror and chronic boredom.” Not everyone rides an emotional roller coaster, although many brace against significant emotional shifts in the course of a typical day — often by just changing from the context of family needs to the expectations of work.

Most choices are not rational, but involve a mixture of both judgment and feeling. Our feelings pull us towards something (or repel us), thereby determining what we value; our thoughts tell us why. If emotionally we can’t get behind a decision — and stay behind it — then it is unlikely we will consistently act in concert with our commitments, regardless of our best intentions.

The worldview that gave us rational thinking as the nature of the civilized mind, and environmental subjugation as the natural order of things, also produced the idea of Manifest Destiny and a desire for heroism, which for too many becomes feelings of shame when they fail to live up to the standards they set for themselves. The hypocrite — as the one who is having a hard time deciding what to do — deserves empathy and not blame for failures to make rational, “green” choices. At least in the United States where heroism is pursued (and shame avoided), we need a green movement that supports rather than disgraces us hypocrites who at times need help making up our minds and sticking to them. In a postmodern world, changing minds is as important as changing industries when it comes to creating a greener world.


Gottschalk, Simon. 2000. “Escape from Insanity: ‘Mental Disorder’ in the Postmodern Moment.” In Pathology and the Postmodern: Mental illness as Discourse and Experience. Edited by Dwight Fee, pp. 18-48. London: Sage Publications.

© 2011 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).