Next time you're out with a friend, try pointing out the more sustainable options on the menu.
Photo © Innovated Captures \

Environmentalists are often involved in some way in other progressive political movements, such as feminism, economic justice, civil rights or the LGBTQ rights movement. This means that if you are an active environmentalist, you are probably no stranger to the phenomenon of being "called out.” In fact, you’ve probably experienced it yourself. Even the most well-meaning can wind up saying things that are offensive and hurtful to underprivileged groups, and that perpetuate injustice against them. Calling out has evolved as a response to this. It allows marginalized people to bluntly tell powerful people to stop doing the things that marginalize them. To be called out is essentially to be told "Please don't do that. It hurts me.”

In polite company, bluntly telling people to change their behaviour is often considered rude. In some contexts, any overt discussion of politics is taboo. But, often citing Carol Hainsch’s slogan "the personal is political,” social justice activists have made a good case that a little bit of awkwardness or rudeness in the short-term is far preferable to allowing long-term systemic oppression to continue unchallenged.  

It is peculiar, then, to see that in the same communities where this practice is so common, people often give their friends a pass on their environmentally destructive behaviours. Hardly anybody ever gets called out for taking intercontinental holidays, for choosing to drive when they don’t have to, or eating large quantities of carbon-intensive foods, such as meat. Apart from subtle pressure within some left-wing communities to become vegans or take up cycling, direct challenges to the sustainability of other peoples’ lifestyles remains far more taboo than challenges to the oppressiveness of their language.

There might be a simple explanation for this double standard. While the hurt and anger resulting from, say, a racist remark, can be felt immediately, the harms caused by unsustainable behaviours are displaced in both space and time from the people committing them. People subject to race-, gender- or sexuality-based oppression are often well-placed to respond directly to comments that hurt them. But what options are open to the farmer whose field has been turned into desert or ocean by the actions of people thousands of miles away and decades in the past? How can she confront them?

Ultimately, she can’t. And so political progressives in the developed world who are extremely careful about the oppressive implications of their language and actions, continue to unapologetically drive to the grocery store where they buy enough meat to have some for every meal for the next week. If a resident in the Maldives could confront such a person, I suspect that she would be justifiably furious. "How dare you say you are interested in human welfare,” she might say, "when you blithely engage in the behaviours that will literally drown my country.”

A bit of discomfort in the immediate present is much better than global climate catastrophe in the future.

First-world environmentalists have some good justifications for not being so brazen. Firstly, there's already a well-established media narrative that casts environmentalists as tempeh-eating killjoys. There’s also mounting evidence that many people don't respond to doomsday climate rhetoric. But maybe we've taken this precaution a bit too far. When some communities have already established the precedent that people can be confronted over their racist or sexist language, why should they not extend this same logic to unsustainable behaviours? Certainly the ethical calculus is the same, as the global harms of climate change are comparable to the local harms of implicit bigotry: a bit of discomfort in the immediate present is much better than global climate catastrophe in the future.

The number of people who might respond to this strategy is probably small. But sustainable technologies and businesses need breathing space early on in order to become competitive, and if more people who are willing to support them in their early days, then they will have an easier time developing to the point that they appeal to everybody else.

I’m not advocating that we should be rude. It's easy to politely ask, "Hey, did you buy carbon offsets for that flight to Thailand?” or tell your friend about the really great bike path that is perfect for their commute and would also do the climate a favour. We can also politely ask our friends if they have considered incorporating more vegetarian options into their diet. However we do it, we owe it to the global victims of climate change to be willing to risk some social discomfort and confront these issues with our friends and families. Decisions about travel habits and diet might be personal, but in a world where car exhaust in one country can cause an inundation in another, the personal is more political than it has ever been before.

Cameron Roberts is a Canadian PhD student studying the cultural history of transportation technology at the University of Manchester. He blogs about science, technology and society at Where's My Jetpack.

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