4 Mantras to Stay Green (Even if Your Neighbor Drives a Hummer)

Seeing red when people around you are trashing the planet?

Here’s how a tragedy of the commons starts. Take one shared resource, like a field, fresh water, fish in a river. Now take one or more individuals who, acting out of self-interest, abuse or deplete that shared resource — even though a bigger picture view would show that a barren field, polluted water, and empty rivers aren’t good for any of us.

To grossly oversimplify for a minute, you could say that many of our environmental issues stem from a tragedy of the commons — a difficulty in acting for the greater, long term good when there is an option for immediate personal gain. As biological creatures, it’s a totally normal and understandable difficulty. Having to consider the good of the species and the planet isn’t something we evolved to do.

However, it’s a problem. And the problem escalates because of a very human idea about fairness. Once one person starts taking advantage, it’s hard for the rest of us not to think, “Well, s/he’s not playing by the rules. Why should I?” My neighbor drives his truck down to the laundry room at the end of the parking area. Why should I walk in the rain (uphill, both ways) to the market instead of drive?

Feeling that the people around us aren’t doing their bit often makes us a bit curmudgeonly in our own green efforts. Why should we have to give up X when our neighbors/friends do/have [insert high impact choice, possession, activity]? Is my reduced impact being swallowed up by my troglodyte neighbor’s self-centered, environmentally disastrous consumerism?

It’s enough to make us reach for our favorite remaining eco-sin in a froth of self-righteous indignation. But that’s just it: it’s an attitude thing, and it doesn’t help anything. I’ve come up with four green mantras that help me ignore those unhelpful feelings of self-martyrdom and keep plugging away.

  1. Going green is not about self-martyrdom or sacrifice. Martyrdom may have been a good short-term strategy for the Catholic saints, but misery is not sustainable in the long term. We have enough resources for what we need — and what we really love.
  2. It is about doing the right thing, and making changes based on better information and a greater sense of responsibility as an earthling. Most of the changes we make have no immediate, obvious impact, much as we’d like to be able to save the planet by cutting our shower short by five minutes. But they’re still the right thing to do, and that matters.
  3. I am responsible for my impact. The fact that my truck-driving, bottled water glugging neighbor has a larger impact than I do does not give me an excuse not to reduce mine. Even as a childfree, vegetarian, not-particularly-materialistic citizen of the developed world, I will never be low impact. There will always be room for improvement.
  4. Green is an attitude, not a checklist. I try to consider, “What is the impact of this action on the planet?” in most of my daily decisions and actions. I accept that other people will choose to make other changes and compromises than I do based on different knowledge, priorities, and experiences.

Does it bother you when you see neighbors or friends leading high impact lives? What keeps you going when you see someone zip by in a Hummer?

Photo by Chad Kainz


24 responses to this post.

  1. That’s a great list… and the story about the people driving 50 feet to the laundry room almost seems like something you’d see on the Colbert Report!

    I could sort of write a novel on this topic so I’ll try to be brief… I think that in general, feelings of entitlement are born out of a sense of injustice… either real or perceived. I think that if you look at the distribution of wealth in this country, people have some legitimate claims to their feelings of injustice. Of course, if you broaden the scope and look at the distribution of wealth world wide, the story becomes a bit different.

    But our popular media exploits this feeling over, and over and over again. Every once in a while, when my stomach is feeling strong, I try to make myself listen to Fox News or Rush Limbaugh just to hear what sort of messages their minions are absorbing. Generally the message is that “other” people are getting a free ride at “their” expense and they should be outraged. This is often coupled with the notion that Christians in this country are somehow oppressed. And the right wing media just fans these flames of discontent.

    So is it really any wonder that people act like self righteous troglodytes (LOVE that word, BTW) when they are constantly fed the message that they are being treated unfairly and therefore have the right to take whatever they can get?

    But here’s the thing… so many of the things that people do because they feel “entitled” don’t really make their lives any easier, happier or better. In fact, as far as I can see, the vast majority of it only serves to keep them trapped in a constant cycle of working longer hours to pay off debt for a bunch of stuff/behaviors that were supposed to make them feel better or give them some sort of societal status, but which really only served to make them slaves to the system which they think they are somehow getting to the top of by consuming so much!

    So I guess to answer your question, when I see people leading high impact lives, the main thing that goes through my mind is how sorry I feel for them. They’re stuck in a hopeless cycle of work and debt and futile attempts to boost their self esteem through status-seeking activities… and it’s all doomed. They don’t get to enjoy the fresh air and exercise that gardening or walking to the store provides, they have to drag around all of that extra weight caused by eating processed foods, they have to worry about gas prices going up, and how they’re gonna pay for all of their expensive toys, and so they have the “right” clothes, and are they “good enough”, and on, and on and on…

    And I am free from all of that.


    • Hi Cat,

      Great observation about conservative media’s efforts to make us feel like other people are getting a free ride — boy, that really does strike a chord, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, as we’re seeing, only caring about yourself and your own has a lot of major social and environmental repercussions. A functioning society involves a significant degree of interdependence.

      I think the entitlement part is a problem, too. The planet doesn’t owe any one of us anything. We don’t have carbon allowances that we can max out (or if we did, they’d be much, much smaller than what we use now). Speaking as an atheist, I don’t feel like humans are special or entitled to more resources than other species. We have more because we take more — and the cost of that extra taking is ecological collapse on many different levels.


  2. Your list is terrific! Yes, it does bother me when I see others living large on our environmental dollar. For example, I can hear my neighbor’s shower … it runs for a LONGGGGGG time! I so want to fix that but … it would only serve to create a lot of “bad”. So I keep my mouth shut and my opinions to myself … but I also hope that someone “hears” how short my showers are. I think that it’s natural to feel that if others aren’t going to try then why should we. But that thinking has gotten our world into a lot of trouble. At some point in time, we have to take action and do the right thing … even if others aren’t … just because it is right. And who knows … if each one of us start doing the right thing, maybe we’ll outnumber those selfish & self-centered folks who aren’t.


    • Hey Small Footprints,

      Doing the right thing just because it’s the right thing to do seems so obvious, and yet it’s not a popular stance — peer pressure, incentives, tangible results all seem to work much better. I think we should encourage them all, but I also hope that we can develop a sort of environmental moral compass in which we simply shut off that lovely cascade of hot water because we know we’ve had a dry winter, or cut down on our meat intake because we know how many resources go into producing it.


  3. I have a nasty habit of silently judging other people for eco-travesties, but I realize it comes down to doing what I can in my own life. And I commit my fair share of enviro-blunders.
    Ultimately, age has shown me that people aren’t fond of change, but when it happens , it almost always must be on their own terms. Therefore, I could preach until I’m blue in the face, but it won’t do a damn bit of good. Bad eco habits are like any other addiction, and most people need to be ready to change. SO, I try to lead by example, influence those who I know are open to it, and raise my kids to be environmentally responsible. It’s no Greenpeace, but it’s my piece.


    • Hi Sara,
      You said it — people change on their own terms. (I’m willing to believe that climate change will force us to change faster, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.) I don’t respond well to preaching myself, so I try hard not to be that person.

      Talking to kids, taking them outdoors, letting them know that their actions have an impact — I think that’s going to be key in how the next generation responds to this mess.


      • I sure hope so. It can be disheartening at times to see eviro-dummies be dumb. But at least some people care. I hope it offsets it all a little. At least we’ve come a long way in only a few generations. Hopeful!


  4. My biggest complaint is my neighbor spraying his lawn for pesticides and then knocking on my door for a donation to help sick children, really?! He’s elderly and not very friendly but I did try to explain my position, still I see the yellow flags in his yard each spring. What is more selfish than poisoning people for a pretty lawn? I’ve always meant to make some yard signs of my own, “animals & children safe here, spray free”


    • Hi Shauna,
      That does sound like a difficult situation. Some people aren’t ready to listen, and unfortunately, with something like sprayed pesticides, the repercussions extend far beyond one person. If you’ve already tried to explain the chemical impact on soil and healthy ecosystems and it didn’t go over well, I’m not sure there’s much more you can do beyond work to make your own garden a good refuge for helpful insects and birds.


  5. It does bother me, yes. But I feel right in knowing I’m doing something positive by living as low-impact as I can.


    • Hi Lori,

      I used to get so angry at seeing recyclables in the trash — what kind of unenlightened people was I living with that they couldn’t even pitch the recyclables in the recycle bin 4 feet away? I now fish out whatever recyclables are clean and within reach and let the rest go. Getting angry at them didn’t really accomplish anything except make me feel resentful at having to clean up their mess for them. I find it much easier to pull out recyclables in the spirit of doing the right thing.


  6. I don’t get that frustrated at the actions or inactions of individuals, perhaps because I am far from being truly green and have no room to talk. Although I sometimes use others lack of action as an excuse to justify mine. As in, why should I take public transportation that takes over twice as long to get to work, when hardly anyone else does, etc.

    What does frustrate me is the lack of our governments(s), especially here in the US to start doing something about climate change, peak oil, etc. It’s going to take a lot more than our individual actions to turn things around. We need regulations for individuals and especially for businesses. I’m not saying individual action isn’t important, I think it is, but we’ll never reach critical mass that way.


    • Hi Candi,

      I struggle with the whole individual/government level change thing, too. I agree that the government is going to have to step it up in order to effect the type of large scale changes we need in order to mitigate climate change at this point. However, I don’t think that’s going to happen until lots of individuals who are passionate about environmental sustainability push for change at the corporate and governmental level, so I do think individual attitudes matter a lot. These green mantras are part of what keep me from getting too discouraged or resentful, but they sure don’t excuse me from trying harder and on a more public scale.


  7. I love this one: “Green is an attitude, not a checklist.” I’m fortunate to live in a fairly eco conscious community so I’m not confronted as often with blatant disregard for the environment. But I can see how handy these mantras would be in those situations as it’s easy to get discouraged and steered off one’s path. Thanks for the encouragement.


    • Thanks, Sandra. How lucky you are to live around people who are aware of the impact of their actions. I always thought I lived in a pretty eco conscious area (come on, it’s California), but am dismayed at how oblivious many of my immediate neighbors are.


  8. Posted by Julie Andrea on 03/08/2012 at 02:59

    I’ll probably get a rock thrown at me for my opinion, LOL. I think that having more than one or two children is not being “green”. There, I said it.


    • Hey Julie Andrea,

      To be perfectly honest, I also find myself silently (or not so silently, if Kevin is around to hear me grouse in disapproval) judging people who have a whole passel of kids. But there’s really no point in it; most people don’t factor in the environment when deciding family size, and even people who are environmentally concerned now may not have been thinking about the connection between more kids = higher impact when they had them. So while I think we should be doing more to make the connection clear and to encourage better family planning and more eco-conscious family planning choices, we should also be helping existing families to find ways to lighten their footprint.


  9. Great explanation of the problem of the commons, and how to avoid that mentality. I esp. like #3. There will always be someone with a larger and smaller impact than me. Fact is, most of the world has a far smaller impact than I do, and that keeps me wanting to change.


    • Thanks, Betsy! #3 is also the one that goes through my head most often. I find that it helps me find a middle ground between self-indulgence and feeling responsible for the whole world’s woes.


  10. I loved your mantras – Green is definitely not about self-martyrdom (it can be, but that certainly doesn’t get anywhere, and really it isn’t your fault people aren’t changing), and is definitely an attitude. People like you more when you don’t threaten their lifestyle habits.

    Unfortunately as a collective we really are incredibly behind on all fronts, not just eco-awareness. I definitely believe that people won’t change for any reason outside of themselves, and only because they feel the need to from within. So I don’t even think about preaching, and I forgive myself for not talking about eco-awareness every opportunity I get. I think what’s even more compelling is to connect as regular people, with no judgments, just appreciation. Telling people you write about green living can be enough to shift the entire mood. I think this approach is more inviting than handing out eco-tips unannounced. No one wants to feel like whenever they’re around you, you’re going to try to change their habits. Unfortunately the process of change is incredibly slow.

    Here in Hollywood there’s no sign of green, save for the occasional Natural Foods Market and Vegan Restaurant. Litter abounds, Hummer limos are an everyday sight, and gas-guzzlers are in. Sometimes you run into a woman with “Animal Rights Activist” tattooed on her back. Unfortunately activism here has become a rebellious status symbol for the nouveau riche.


    • Hi Lynn,

      Being surrounded by people who simply don’t care can definitely make us feel more defensive or martyred. Moving to Hollywood after years of living in San Francisco must have been an adjustment!

      I agree that talking (and listening) to people as individuals is one of the most important things we can be doing. I’m not very good at talking to people in real life, so not being social may be my biggest eco-sin…


  11. Posted by Andrea on 03/22/2012 at 11:02

    Apologies for the super late comment. I left town the day you posted this and have been catching up to e-mails first, then blogs, since returning a few days ago.

    What I try to do when I see people doing anti-green things is not get angry at them but rather get angry at the factors that make it possible for them to do what they do and not even think about it. Why are Hummers available for purchase in the first place? Why hasn’t bottled water been outlawed in areas where tap water is perfectly safe to drink? Why is electricity so cheap that people can take insanely long showers? Why haven’t pesticides been banned? Etc…

    It’s not that I don’t believe each individual is responsible for their own actions, it’s that if I want to make change happen, it’s not going to be about educating one person at a time, desperately trying to get them to see things my way. It has to, least in part, come from the top down with changes to the way we do things as a society. Let’s face it, as long as environmentally disastrous conveniences continue to be affordable and accessible, the majority of folks won’t stop indulging in them.


    • Hi Andrea,

      No need to apologize; I’m happy to see you whenever you care to comment! I’m a bit ambivalent as far as more legislation goes. I agree with the idea and see that legislation has fast, big implications (like bag bans, but also China’s one child policy) and doesn’t count on humans being reasonable, intelligent, and conscientious. However, I also do see problems with a government that gets too big and starts legislating everything. My friend said something a while ago that I agree with: the government should make it cheap and easy for us to behave well and expensive and difficult for us to behave badly. So, go ahead, keep bottled water available — but make it its actual cost, including damage to ocean ecosystems. Same with gas. I think $15/gallon gas would deter a lot of idiots from driving Hummers. Make public transportation a viable alternative to driving. Give us the illusion that we’re acting out of personal choice, while steering us towards good choices. 🙂


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