Are you a ‘true’ environmentalist / vegan / feminist?

Well, looks like I’m not a ‘true’ environmentalist. I still have a car, I still don’t buy 100% organic, I haven’t eaten the carbon-intensive blind cat, I’m still on the grid, and yep, there’s even still a roll of paper towels (recycled) in my kitchen — mostly for said cat’s occasional hairball.

I have a bone to pick with the word ‘true.’ I’ve seen it slapped on a bunch of different labels recently, and a certain pattern is emerging. I’m not a ‘true’ feminist because I have reservations about Slut Walk as an expression of equality and a demand for respect. Bill Clinton, who chooses not to eat animal products for health reasons, is not a ‘true’ vegan. Hell, I’m not even a ‘true’ vegetarian because I have clam chowder once or twice a year.

Let’s decode this. Can I suggest that, in each of these cases, by ‘true’ the speaker simply means conforming to beliefs s/he personally holds, things that s/he already does? By implication, anyone we don’t consider a ‘true’ [insert label here] is, well, lame. I won’t deny that there are different levels of commitment. There are. But using ‘true’ to describe difference isn’t about one’s own commitment to a set of values. It’s about stepping on other people in order to feel superior and exclusive.

Worst of all, it doesn’t help anything.  Instead of encouraging the people who are most receptive to learning and perhaps committing more to a cause, it alienates. Making people defensive is a terrible way to promote your cause. Instead of reaching out, it closes off. And worst of all, people are more likely to judge an entire cause as being preachy, intolerant, and close-minded after even a few bad encounters.

I’ve been on both sides of this problem. I used to scoff at buying organic because most of the people I knew who did so were self-righteous Whole Foods shoppers. After an unpleasant encounter with vegans on my college campus, I chowed down on a hamburger. At the same time, I’m pretty darn judgmental myself.  I judge the people in my condo who don’t recycle their plastic water bottles, people with lots of kids in tow, people who accept a plastic bag when buying a single item, people who still think they can somehow shop their way into sustainability.  Not judging, not labeling — now that’s hard. But shouldn’t we try?

Labels are convenient, but they present the appearance of unity without acknowledging that one person’s idea of being an environmentalist or vegan or whatever will not totally coincide with anyone else’s. (And that’s good, because adopting a label does not give you the right to stop thinking for yourself.)  Deeming a ‘true’ anything is completely subjective and particularly unhelpful. Let’s cut it out already.

Have you ever used ‘true’ with a label you identified with? What did you really mean by it?

17 responses to this post.

  1. I was watching a show the other day and the narrator started talking about things like eating organic food and was using the word “pure.” Like “do you eat only pure foods?” He was talking just about diet, but it had a lot of the same tones of what you say about environmental sustainability in general.

    Then he stopped and said, “whenever I hear the word ‘pure,’ I figure the folks in brown shirts and jackboots are not far behind.”

    I think that applies here, too. Yes, I know, Godwin’s Law has rarely been evoked this quickly. But I do think there is a parallel and some people can do more harm than good with their attitudes towards others who they feel are not living as sustainably as they should. The Nazis talked about “useless eaters” – those disabled people who take from society and don’t give back and we all know what their solution was for that problem.

    I think that those of us who care about the environment have to watch out for that same tendency in ourselves. No, we’re not sending folks to the gas chamber, but when we get too hung up on who is “truly” green and who is not, we can end up sending messages — whether unconsciously or overtly — to others that they are not as worthy because they are not as green as we feel they should be.

    How to counteract the urge to become a green Nazi? In my opinion, it’s to always remain conscious of the fact that messages of love are far more penetrating than messages of judgment. The more we are able to “love others into becoming greener” the more we will succeed and the less we will view them as “useless eaters” who just take and take from the earth and never give back.


    • Hi Sparrow Rose,
      Great points, and I totally agree that ‘pure’ has many of the same issues as ‘true.’ I try to keep my focus on how to reduce the impact of my own life, but the urge to judge others who don’t know as much, do as much, or care as much is still there. But if I can’t suppress the urge to judge, I can at least determine the way I talk to other people and keep telling myself that there are many different paths to an end goal of sustainability. Being resentful about the resources they use doesn’t accomplish anything — and it’s not like I’m an ethereal creature who doesn’t use any, either. (My cat would surely count as a ‘useless eater’!)

      What kinds of actions would you consider loving someone into being greener?


  2. Me? Not true but trying. It is the trying that makes the difference. True just is one person’s way of discounting the efforts of another’s, as they are not “true” enough. This leads to discouragement, and perhaps less trying.

    I label in my mind too, but when someone tells me of a small effort they are making I am all over it with “that’s awesome” and “that’s great” and smiles and high fives (well maybe not the high fives).

    It all starts and ends with trying!


    • Hi Sherry,
      I’m all for trying, too. 🙂 We have to start somewhere, and the problem is so big that we can’t singlehandedly solve anything. I also try to be supportive whenever someone shows an interest in making greener choices, even if there are still better ones out there (e.g. commercial green cleaners as opposed to DIY-ing with baking soda and vinegar). I think the idea of being a ‘true environmentalist’ is problematic because our total impact is so hard to measure. Who’s the ‘true environmentalist’ — the teacher educating kids about recycling and conserving who drives a Prius, or the hermit who lives off grid in the woods? But I’m all for trying to improve all areas of your own life, identifying lower impact actions, and making progress.


  3. Posted by Lynn on 08/26/2011 at 16:09

    Crazy! I teach early childhood and labeling is NO GOOD for anyone or cause. What is true is how you feel, what you do to better yourself and being true to who you are right! That’s just my 2 cents tho – wow. True is supposed to be a positive word, not a label that scares others away – you are so right! Love it 🙂


    • Hi Lynn,
      I often think it’s too bad so few of the lessons we learn in early childhood seem to stick. Why can’t our politicians play nice with the other people, be honest, and learn to share? I agree that trying to shape your life to fit your values is the closest thing we have to being a true anything, and it’s a very subjective form of true. Thanks for stopping by!


  4. Posted by Hazel on 08/26/2011 at 16:27

    How TRUE! Personally I never aim to be ‘true’…just better! I try to make simple changes and maintain them and in time they are cumulative. But I do not condemn the ‘TRUE’…for me it is something to aim for…one day…a step at a time. I don’t feel pressured to be perfect…but maybe that is because I am old!

    I remember the first wave of feminism…I admired the bra burners but didn’t burn my own. But I did make changes and support the movement. We always need the radicals to promote the cause and, in some way, to show the way…but we can always choose (or not) to follow, and we can also choose our own pace.


    • Hi Hazel,
      That seems like a healthy and balanced approach to me. I aim for better, too — knowing that the lowest carbon solution is always not to be alive! I do agree that people who are very convinced of a black and white truth are the most outspoken activists and perform an important role in getting any movement started. At the same time, I hate to see this kind of rhetoric put off people who might otherwise be receptive. It’s definitely a fine line!


  5. Jennifer,

    Oh goodness, guilty as charged! My blog tag line says “true” happiness. Yikes! What to do? Am I judging everyone else and telling them they got it wrong? I can have a bit of an arrogant streak, so this is a good reminder to keep that in check.

    Your point is well taken. Speaking in dualistic extremes vis-a-vis green living and the other arenas you pinpoint only serves to divide. I’m definitely not a true anything. I take my steps forward, but I should be the last one to judge anyone else.

    Yes, judgment comes up in the mind. It’s just another thought. If we just let it go and don’t follow after it with more thought it will disappear in due time.

    Thanks for challenging us on the judgment front.


    • Hi Sandra,
      Yikes, I didn’t mean to point a finger at you! And I am absolutely sure that no one has been offended by the context in which you use ‘true’ on your blog. I’ve always interpreted it to mean lasting or deep contentment.

      I love what you say about judgment. I’ve never known what to do about making snap judgments about people (usually negative, I’m afraid), and tend to overthink it rather than let it go. I’ll remember your words next time the person in front of me at the supermarket asks for something to be double-bagged. 🙂


  6. Before commenting, can I just say it’s an absolute pleasure to read your blog because of posts like these? You think about things that almost never cross my mind… and then I’m inspired to actually consider these totally valid points. Thank you!

    Yes, I label. Yes, I judge. Yes, I have arrogant tendencies that lead me to feel superior, and it’s not just about my environmental values. For me, this is a nasty personality trait adopted from my father, and I know it stems from insecurity. So, on days when I feel more confident, I don’t find myself labelling, judging, and feeling more true/pure/superior compared to others. I guess I need to work on how I feel about myself to stop caring so much about what we’re all doing relative to each other. It’s a tough battle, but I’m pretty motivated to stop being such a bitch! 🙂


    • Thanks, Andrea! What a lovely thing to say. Every now and then I wonder if I should continue blogging — sometimes it feels like I’m in a bit of a rut and have already said everything I wanted to say.

      I think we’re probably all judgmental to some degree. I’ve been noticing that one of the things that makes me feel really unhappy and dissatisfied is when I compare myself to other people, whom I judge as being more successful/ fulfilled/ proactive about saving the world. Maybe being judgmental in either direction just doesn’t make us any happier.


  7. Posted by Hazel on 08/29/2011 at 00:34

    Hi, I hope you don’t mind. I have nominated you for a blog award. You don’t have to do anything. It is just that I wanted to point out your blog to my readers.


  8. Posted by Pchan on 09/04/2011 at 00:38

    *Thank you* for writing this article! I just want to add that it doesn’t help anyone to be ‘true’ or ‘pure’ simply because it wouldn’t allow us to learn from our failings. With regards to the vegan vision, I’ve heard it said “Being vegan isn’t about being perfect, it’s about making the choice that causes the least amount of suffering.” I hope this more accommodating viewpoint will help people to embrace, learn, and grow.


    • Hi Pchan,
      It’s true…there’s always more we could be doing. I feel like I’m constantly discovering that old habits of mine aren’t particularly green, and just as constantly, finding greener ways to do things.

      I’ve heard that vegan ideal before, and I think the problem with it is that it still often seems to lead to comparisons with what other people do (e.g. look down on people who eat cane sugar because it might have been filtered through bone char), and suffering, like environmental impact, is peculiarly difficult to measure. Measuring how well you’re doing against your earlier self is helpful, but comparing yourself to other people just doesn’t really seem to lead anywhere productive.


  9. “Have you ever used ‘true’ with a label you identified with? What did you really mean by it?”

    –Maybe in my early twenties but not recently. I’ve come to see that these things are a spectrum. I always say that I’m here to learn to live a little lighter on this planet, not to become a green monster. If I am more evolved than some on the green front I can assure you that there are areas of life where people are way more evolved than me so it evens out.


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