By Donella Meadows
–May 25, 1989–
A young environmentalist friend was telling me the other day that she can’t eat a tuna fish sandwich without being ragged by her compatriots. “Is that albacore?” they pry. “If not, why not?”
Eco-fashion has evolved. When I was a young activist, back around Earth Day 1970, we did not eat tuna at all. It was laced with mercury, remember? I haven’t heard about the mercury being removed from the oceans, but these days one’s tuna consumption no longer signifies one’s concern for health; it signifies one’s solidarity with dolphins. All tuna except albacore are caught with purse-seine nets, which pull in dolphins that school with tuna. In fact dolphins are used by purse-seiners to spot the tuna.
So save the dolphins. Eat only albacore tuna.
In the old days we wouldn’t use colored paper, because the dyes contained toxic heavy metals — cadmium, lead, and chromium. Nowadays eco-insiders do not even use white paper. White paper is bleached with chlorine. In the process dioxin is produced, poisoning the surroundings of the paper plant and seeping into the paper itself. For stationery ecological purists now use “minimum impact paper”, unbleached, light-tan, made from recycled fiber. They buy unbleached coffee filters, toilet paper, and paper towels imported from Sweden. These items are the color of the brown paper bags one used to get in grocery stores.
Of course eco-freaks still get brown paper bags in grocery stores. They would starve to death before they would carry groceries home in plastic bags.
I don’t remember making a fuss about disposable diapers twenty years ago — maybe because hardly anyone used them. These days if you want to sort the eco-sheep from the goats, you check out whether they use real diapers. You also look for a houseful of 11-watt fluorescent light bulbs and a family car that gets at least 40 mpg and has no air-conditioner. Energy conservation is number one on the Right Lifestyle List, because it combats the greenhouse effect, acid rain, urban smog and nasty nuclear wastes. Car air-conditioners are out because they contain chlorofluoro-carbons that destroy the ozone layer.
If we had a real eco-President, he (or probably she) would make disposal diapers and air conditioners the litmus test for appointment to high office, not opinions on abortion or school prayer.
The eco-pure have never let fast-food hamburgers cross their lips, but their reasons have changed. In the old days the complaints were that beef is raised with antibiotics and hormones; that eating beef deprives the hungry of grain; and that the fat content is too high. Nowadays burgers are to be avoided because they are packed in polystyrene; because tropical forests are cleared to pasture the beef; and because the fat content is still too high.
The polystyrene point may be diminishing in importance, though. A year ago polystyrene foam was the N.O.P.E. (Number One Plastic Enemy), because its little bubbles were blown with chlorofluorocarbons. Now, largely because of consumer boycotts, the foam is blown with other gases (the jury is still out on their eco-acceptability). The new N.O.P.E. is polyvinyl chloride — made from hazardous organo-chlorine compounds.
In fact, if you want to get ahead of the pack, I’d advise eliminating all chlorine-containing stuff from your life (with the exception of salt, but including chlorinated drinking water). I bet on chlorine as the big Eco-No-No of the 1990s.
Can this pickiness about the kind of tuna you eat and the kind of plastic you use be serious? Can it make any difference? Isn’t it just one more hassle in one’s life? Or one more of the many excuses human beings have used through the ages to look down on other human beings?
Yes, to all the above, I think. Most of those who follow the eco-fads are deeply committed and deadly serious. They are convinced that the market is the most effective lever for shifting our wastrel ways — and they can cite many victories to prove their point. Their practices do add hassle to their lives, but they don’t mind; they feel good about themselves. And they can be insufferably self-righteous. Used as a reason to treat others as inferiors, Eco-chic can be as bad as a PhD or a BMW or the Moral Majority.
Ah, that sin of pride, lying in wait for those who try earnestly to purge their lives of all other sins!
Is it humanly possible to take your polyethylene teraphthalate soda bottles to the recycling center without sneering at those who don’t (or who can’t even pronounce polyethylene teraphthalate)? Perhaps not, though it wouldn’t hurt the eco-freaks to try. As for everyone else, well, to make fun of the self-righteous is to be self-righteous yourself. Just because some people are overly pious about their tuna fish doesn’t mean that they haven’t got a point. You could pitch in to help the dolphins too.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989