Are Environmentalists Naïve? (Or Is It Just Me?)

There’s a joke about Canadians that goes something like this:

How do you get a large group of Canadians out of a pool on a hot summer’s day?

You say, “Please leave the pool.”

Ha ha?

So this joke is a nod to a stereotype: Canadians are often viewed as law-abiding, reasonable, and polite, and as such, it would be in our (generalized) collective nature to obediently clamber out of the pool when asked. Sure, we might grumble — Oh, come on! You’ve got to be kidding! It’s so hot! — but we’d still trundle ourselves out and towel off.

There’s also, it’s got to be acknowledged, a hint of naïveté intermingling with the obedience: there’s no reason given as to why the Canadians must leave the pool; perhaps part of the joke is the fact that we seemingly listen so readily to authority figures.

It should go without saying that this joke is, well, a joke. It’s not as though an experiment (a hot summer day + a pool + a group of Canadians + an unexplained although politely delivered imperative) is going to garner the “expected” results. If it did, we’d be a northern Utopia where there’d be no need for prisons and everyone would be consistently kind and polite to each other. (Psst … it’s not like that up here … )

But here’s what I’ve been wondering: perhaps the joke holds more truth for environmentalists than it does for Canadians.

What would happen, I wonder, if you stuck a bunch of environmentalists in a pool on a hot summer’s day and then politely asked them to get out? Obviously, I can only speak for myself, but here’s how my thought process would run:

I need to get out of the pool? Well, there must be some good reason, so okay, I guess I’d better … /starts to swim to the edge/ … I wonder if maybe it’s a pH thing, or too much chlorine, or maybe — ohmygosh! — maybe a geologist has just discovered an unstable seismic rift running underneath the pool and the Earth’s about to open up and swallow us alive! Gee, we’d better get out fast! No, LEAVE the noodles!

I’ve been in a heavily contemplative mood lately. Hence the relative silence on this blog. 2015 is a wholelotta stuff. It’s the year my husband turns 50. It’s 30 years since I graduated from high school. It’s the year our middle child will enter grade twelve. 2015 also finds us entering the fifth year of our nine-month renovation. (How mind-numbingly long does it take to paint two sets of French doors, anyway?). And here’s where I connect back to environmentalists and naïveté: this month marks one year since I felt like the wind was knocked out of me.

Here’s what happened a year ago:

First off, I read Bill McKibben’s Eaarth. In this book, McKibben lays out disturbing evidence that our planet is past the point of no-return; that we had our chance to fix things — to stop climate change — and we squandered it. And the result will be Eaarth, a planet that’s so drastically changed from what we know today that we might as well give it a new name.

This is not a book that should be read by the faint of heart. If that sounds like I’m bragging, I assure you I’m not. My husband was away when I borrowed it from the library, and he came home to a completely depressed wife. It was as though a pack of dementors had taken up residence (cue the scene where Ron Weasley moans, I felt as though I’d never be happy again).

“Stop reading it!” my husband implored.

To which I plaintively replied, “I can’t unread what I’ve already read, and anyway, it’s supposed to end on a hopeful note! That’s what the reviews said! I have to get to that hopeful bit at the end, dammit!”

Hah! Hopeful, schmopeful! I don’t know what the hell kind of Pollyanna person said Eaarth was “hopeful” at the end, because when I finished the book, I felt as though I’d been hit by a truck. I looked at my three children and felt fear as I’d never felt fear before, and I sank into a weeks’ long depression that was punctuated by the second thing that happened:

The UN released their latest Climate Change Report. It was featured on our nightly national news, where the anchor calmly told us, Climate change: it’s real, it’s happening now, it’s going to be worse than anyone ever anticipated.

And I — naïve, law-abiding, obedient me, a person who would climb willingly out of a pool on a hot summer’s day — actually, momentarily! had a glimmer of hope. Completely squashing Bill McKibben’s stark pessimism that it was too late, I suddenly had the fervent hope that people might at last start to connect the dots, might see how their little actions could add up to the change that was needed. Humankind would finally band together and save the planet, all in the nick of time! Wahoo, humans! Way to pull one out of the fire!

So this, in a nutshell, is what I imagined: that the drive-thru lane at Tim Horton’s would be empty; that the grocery store would start to pull bottled water from its shelves; that people would eschew plastic grocery bags for once and for all; that people everywhere would start to talk about the fact that we’ve been using the equivalent of four planets’ worth of resources.

In other words, I fully expected people to climb out of the metaphorical pool and towel themselves off and say, Well, that was fun, but now we’d better get serious! Our grandchildren might want to use this pool someday; let’s not wreck it for them, hey?

How’s that for complete and total naïveté?

I hear the Earth is going to pot, and I go into reaction mode: I need to compost? Sure, okay! Give me a bin — oh heck, we’ll make our own, thanks! Wait, what? Tea bags too? Hmmm … maybe we should find loose tea; then there wouldn’t be all these bags … And I know your parents gave us this Nespresso machine but these damn pods are so freaking wasteful! If you’re going to use the thing, can you limit it to next-to-nothing and then can we at least scrape out the grounds and compost them and then recycle the pods? And who put that banana peel in the garbage? Yes, you can pick it out, it won’t kill you! What’s that? I need to use less gas? Sure, okay! I’ll combine trips, I’ll car pool! Want a lift? Anyone else? And what’s this I hear about hypermiling? Accelerate slowly, and anticipate road conditions in order to avoid braking? Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but really … I don’t actually need to use the car, do I? Yes, let’s just walk! No, no, a minus 30 windchill isn’t that bad. Just bundle up, it’ll be fine …

And then I look around and here’s what I see: fellow hockey mums and dads with Tim Horton’s cups in their hands each. and every. game and practice; people loading up on cases of bottled water ($2.66 for a 30-pack; what a Great Low Price!); parents leaving their cars running (!) while they stroll up to the school and wait for their child to emerge from their kindergarten classroom (15 minutes later!).

Is it any wonder environmentalists are such a haranguing, hand-wringing, perpetually annoyed bunch of people?

Perhaps that’s too broad a brushstroke.

I’ll rephrase: Is it any wonder I am such a haranguing, hand-wringing, perpetually annoyed sort of person?

So that’s where I’ve been for a month or so. Busily stuffing down the haranguing, hand-wringing, perpetually annoyed part of me; standing on a razor-edge of what feels a bit like panic. Quietly trying my best to make sure 2015 is NOT the year I let loose with a primal scream in the hockey arena: Buy a to-go cup — and USE the damn thing! Or stop someone in the grocery store to ask: Excuse me, but is there a boil water advisory I don’t know about? And the one that could get me banned from the schoolyard: For God’s sake, turn off your fucking car! 

Am I alone here?

(I think it would be a really good idea to focus on the Gezellig part of this blog for a while. The part where I talk about cozy and comfortable homes; the part where I don’t come off as a loose cannon. Anyone interested in seeing crib piece number two? Or maybe a braided rug? (Or two, or three? … I’ve been kinda obsessed with these lately … ))


15 thoughts on “Are Environmentalists Naïve? (Or Is It Just Me?)

  1. I sympathize completely with your rant. I haven’t been in such a despondent place myself recently–at least, not for long; I was temporarily very upset last weekend when my 10-year-old asked for cornflakes in Target, and I told him no because they are GMO, and he said, “Give it up, Mom! Soon all the foods will be GMO!”–but it isn’t easy to cope with the clueless behavior of the masses in the face of the impending horror.

    Oddly, my giving in and joining Facebook has given me some encouragement: I’m now reconnected to my high-school friends from Oklahoma (half of whom are still living there) who used to be wasteful and roll their eyes at my eco-ideas…and now they are talking about reusing and recycling and non-toxic cleaners! Even the ones who still identify as Republican are critical of global-warming denial. (But it’s the recent campaign to ban Advanced Placement high school courses in Oklahoma schools that’s got them seriously considering voting Democratic next time!) It’s a more personal version of the hope I feel each time I see another earth-friendly product in a mainstream store.

    But the idea that it may be too late now is still terrifying. 😦


    1. Thanks, ‘Becca. I’ve gotten a similar “give it up” attitude from my kids as well, and it’s certainly not an easy thing to hear 😦 . You do have to stick to your principles though, right? And it does get easier … I became so used to objections and protestations from our older two (regarding a variety of things) that now, when it comes to our youngest (who is almost 10), I can manage to take his criticisms and complaints with a much healthier matter-of-fact “oh well” attitude than I ever did with the older two.

      I’m so glad for you that you’re finding encouragement now among old friends; it must be quite a validating feeling, to see that they’re now coming around to your way of thinking about the environment.

      And I really appreciate your last statement. You get it, and I’m not alone. Thank you.


  2. I share your frustrations when I see others taking actions that hurt the planet. I try to do as much as I can but always feel like I could be doing more, so it is disheartening to see people who seem liking they are not helping at all. I appreciate your efforts. I just keep doing as much as I can and hoping more people keep joining in.


    1. It helps hearing that I’m not the only one who’s frustrated and disheartened. My husband will sometimes joke that if only I would lower my expectations, I wouldn’t be disappointed. I think that part of my problem with all this is that because I care so deeply, I truly cannot fathom why others don’t seem to care to the same extent that I do. It’s our only planet! Our ONE home! I’ll sometimes think, when I see someone doing something which I figure everyone should know by now not to do. And then I have the double whammy of feeling both annoyed with the person in question, as well as annoyed with myself, because I know my inner reactions are really quite judgemental, and not only is that not healthy for me (because stewing is stressful), but it’s also perhaps unfair to the person being judged as well. Take the hockey parents with their disposable cups…for all I know they recycle and compost and bike to work and buy local/organic and eat vegetarian, and their ONE lapse in environmental stewardship is the coffee cups! (It’s totally unlikely, but the possibility does exist!) If only the stakes weren’t so high in all this 😦

      Many thanks for coming by, Jennifer, and for taking the time to leave a comment 🙂


  3. “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is true, of course, and yet I also think that it isn’t enough. These are big, systemic problems we are dealing with here, and we can’t expect our individual everyday choices to scale up into a solution. I mean, if everybody used two fewer squares of toilet paper every day, that would save a lot of trees…and yet the world would still be going to hell in a handbasket. Maybe this is even more depressing! But for me what this kind of thinking means is that we can’t solve these problems on our own…so we should let go of holding ourselves to that expectation. We have to think about and advocate for BIG solutions, while giving ourselves permission to live our lives in the meantime…and also of course having the integrity to live our lives according to our values in the meantime (this last bit is my way of saying yes please! I really want to see your crib and braided rug projects!). I don’t know, maybe that sounds too pat, but that’s where I am in terms of not spiraling into depression about it all.

    What may make you feel better is that my 7 year old has a very different attitude than what you describe for your kids (and what I see described elsewhere in this comment thread). Maybe she is just enough younger that she is a kind of “environmental native” (borrowing from the idea of “digital native” — it’s just the culture she’s growing up with). Last night in fact she was trying to shame me into starting a backyard compost pile. Well, our city picks up yard waste and composts it, and I tried explaining to her that there is some research suggesting that large-scale composting is actually better/more efficient at breaking down certain things than backyard compost piles, but she wasn’t buying it. 🙂 As I’m typing it strikes me that this is actually a perfect example of what I’m talking about, it is way more sustainable and efficient to have city yard-waste pickup and large-scale composting than to expect individual households to do this on their own on top of ALL THE OTHER STUFF that has to be done to run a household these days, but my daughter had this “50 simple things you can do” mindset.


    1. I agree with a lot of what you’re saying :). First off, yes, the big systemic changes (and by this, I’m assuming you mean where our energy comes from) are nearly completely out of our hands. Unless we can afford to spring for solar panels on our roofs or drill for geothermal, the only thing we can do is to write or lobby our governments or utility companies and to ask them to invest more heavily in wind/solar etc.

      And yes, I agree that large-scale composting is probably more efficient than a backyard composter. When we lived in Minnesota we were able to bring our food waste to a central location for large-scale composting. It was terrific, and not a huge effort – we kept food out of the landfill and our family of five was able to go down to a garbage container size meant for a family of two (and we didn’t even fill that!). We got so used to NOT throwing our food waste in the garbage that when we moved to Ontario and found there wasn’t any such program in our small municipality, we took the plunge and built our own composter, because at that point it just felt absolutely wrong to be putting food scraps into the landfill. Do I love composting? No, I don’t. It’s not really a fun job. But does it take a huge effort? Not really. Would a municipal system compost our food waste faster/more thoroughly? Maybe. But for our purposes, it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that our food waste isn’t going to the landfill where it’ll produce methane, but back to our garden. I guess my point with this is that if your city is forward thinking and amenable to going green, that’s fantastic. But if it isn’t, you might be waiting an awfully long time for them to finally “step up to the plate” so to speak, and to do what’s best for the environment. Where you are, on the west coast, seemingly “everyone” is green. Here in Ontario, our largest city (Toronto) caved to the plastic manufacturer lobbyists and actually repealed a plastic bag surcharge that they had in place, even though there was a demonstrable positive effect. The council members of the small city we live in felt pressured to not reduce the number of allowable garbage bags from 4 to 2 even though that would have increased our currently dismal recycling rates. I think it’s fantastic that your daughter, at 7, is asking you for a backyard composter, but I don’t see any evidence here that any of my kids’ friends (not even my youngest) are “environmental natives”.

      On personal consumption, I think we actually play a far bigger role than we might think. Have you heard of the artist/activist Chris Jordan? ( ). (Hopefully that link will work). He was featured/interviewed in the documentary The Clean Bin Project, and his work involves doing the math on our consumption and then showing what that consumption looks like on a large scale. It’s absolutely mind-boggling, the stuff we needlessly run through, and I think there’s a huge disconnect between our small actions and those small actions when taken on a global scale. And yes, saving on a few squares of toilet paper won’t save the planet, but all our excesses taken altogether? I do believe that would be huge! I completely understand that people are busy, and I’m not advocating that we must all make our own laundry detergent and start using wash boards because we have to save on electricity, but a lot of the things that people *could* be doing aren’t onerous. I will never buy the claim that someone doesn’t have enough time to fill a reusable water bottle, or to bring their own mug to the coffee shop, or that it’s difficult to do, once it’s been established as a habit. And I know you’re not claiming that those particular things are onerous and un-doable, but I think it’s a huge risk to assume we can’t make a difference, and to wait for governments and corporations to finally step in. To me, that’s like not bailing out a leaking boat because we radioed for help. Sure, the help may come in time and the bailing would prove to have been unnecessary; but conversely, the help may never come. And even though we bail, we may sink anyway, but at least we’ll sink knowing we tried our very best. But that’s just my take on it 🙂


  4. Hello Marian,
    I missed this when it posted because. Wholelottastuff. But I think you know I found myself in a similar place last summer. I wish I could tell you a good way out of it, but I don’t know it. I think all that happened for me is that personal crises became more immediate than long-term, global ones, and I haven’t been able to deal with anything but those for months and months now. When I let myself really think of it, I feel so powerless and full of despair. Then I find myself thinking, well–by the time it gets really bad, my life will be done. (Which causes me to feel shame and guilt.) The past few weeks, the sun has been shining almost non-stop and all the bulbs and buds are blooming as if it were late March. Everyone is posting on FB how wonderful it all is, and I want to do is rant about how it is absolutely the opposite of wonderful. The buds are not supposed to be blooming yet! What do they think August is going to be like? Don’t they understand why the weather is so wonky everywhere? Haven’t they looked at the projection maps? No, they are too busy splashing in the damn pool to hear the lifeguard’s whistle.

    Sorry I have nothing uplifting to contribute to this thread. Gah.


    1. Aargh, yes, we had a spring like that here in Pittsburgh in 2012: Everything bloomed a month ahead of schedule. It meant that when I came home from the hospital with very bad news on April 17, I was able to sink to my knees in my yard and bury my face in lilacs, which was helpful. But most of the rest of the time, the wrongness of it made me shudder.


    2. I don’t think there is any way to contribute anything uplifting to this thread 😦

      I’ve had similar thoughts to the whole “by the time it gets really bad, my life will be done” – although I tend not to use those words for myself and my life anymore, because I no longer believe I’ll be dead when it gets bad, but I have those thoughts for my parents and my in-laws, and I often consider that they’ll be lucky to be out of this world when things get really bad. On my bad days I feel quite resentful of my in-laws especially, because wonderful people though they are, they’ve spent their lives consuming, consuming, consuming, and not really giving a damn about the environment, and it doesn’t seem to phase them that their grandchildren will pay the price for it all. They’re not climate change deniers, but I believe they tend to have the same view that my husband often has – “every generation has its problems and its crosses to bear, yada yada” – and yes, they went through WW II (absolutely horrific, I know), but climate change…for Earth to turn to “Eaarth”…the scale of this is just sometimes unthinkable 😦

      I heard on the news too, about the weather on the west coast – the cherry blossoms blooming in Vancouver well ahead of schedule…I wish people would connect the dots. You *could* rant on FB, though! A polite rant! I wonder what would happen? Would you lose friends or would people finally begin to get it? I wonder sometimes where we’re at with the whole politically correct “you must not judge someone’s actions” with respect to the environment. Maybe that should be my next post.

      On the subject of personal crises, I do hope things are starting to get a bit better for you, Rita.

      All the best,


  5. Yesterday, my seven year old asked me why so many people don’t even CARE that we are destroying the earth. I had to look at her earnest little face and say, “Because it’s easy to see the immediate benefit and forget the long term cost. It’s easier to take multiple trips. To buy the individual wrapped cheeses. To have a car for each driver. But the impact of those things is hard to see, so some people ignore it.” The sad thing is that despite working for an environmental lobbyist during college and all the “good” environmental choices I make, I’m guilty of making “quick” choices too.

    It’s terrible because the situation is bad and I know it’s going to get worse quickly but I also know I will never, ever, ever read that book (just this post makes me sad) for the same reason I avoid most news channels: it’s not healthy to obsess about that which we can’t change. We can do our part, we can share our knowledge, but ultimately…we can only control the controllables.

    And I need to pick your brain on composting. We’re starting a new one at this house and I’m little terrified.


    1. I’m so sorry this post made you sad, Kate. I have to confess that I find it difficult sometimes, to try to keep things positive and proactive on this blog, rather than pessimistic. I feel the weight of this problem so heavily and sometimes I still fool myself into thinking, if only people really knew what they were doing, they’d change…maybe my words will make a difference… (Yes – *total* naïveté!)

      If I could go back in time, I would definitely choose NOT to read this book. It was much easier to be hopeful before I read it. When I returned the book to our small branch library, the librarian and I spoke about the book. She said she couldn’t make herself read it, but that her 16 year old daughter – who is a friend of my 16 year old son – had read it, and that she had cried after reading it, and the only comfort her mother could offer was to list out everything their family was doing which was in their power to do. I left the library that day hoping that my kids wouldn’t ever decide to read the book, because I didn’t want them – at such a young age – to feel hopeless, and that it was too late to save the planet. But just a few months later my 16 year old son came to me with a bit of dire environmental news he had just heard somewhere on the internet, a bit of information I already knew from my reading of Eaarth. The look on his face … 😦 . It was an absolutely heart-wrenching mix of fear and panic and hopelessness, and it was all I could do to not cry, to tell him that there were a lot of good people in the world, all trying to do their best. It made me want to double down on all of it, to make sure that even if our neighbours weren’t bothering to recycle, or if (seemingly) every Tom, Dick and Harry in the grocery store was buying flats of bottled water, that we were at the very least doing everything we could do … even though I know that we aren’t perfect either, and that a *real* environmentalist, like Bill McKibben (the author of Eaarth), would probably look at our family of five, with our minivan and our non-existent solar panels and would be able to list a myriad of things we could be doing better 😦

      I completely agree with you, that it’s not healthy to obsess about that which we can’t change. I can’t watch much of what’s on the news anymore either. All the horror that’s happening in the middle east just makes me despair for humanity. With regards to the environment though, for some reason, I can’t quite seem to stop myself … I’m now reading “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate”. I think I need my head examined. That, or a really good book recommendation! I read The Signature of All Things over Christmas and LOVED it, and need to find something along those same lines, something to just carry my mind off in a better direction 🙂


      1. I’m GLAD you shared your thoughts. I agree that our voices and opinions matter. Someone may make environmental choices (I didn’t even THINK about those individually wrapped cheeses I was throwing in my kiddos lunch until a friend pointed out all those plastic wrappers. EEK!) and others will feel less alone. I get a lot of eye rolling when I talk about downsizing our home and moving to a one car household. It’s nice to know there are other people who think like me.

        I really struggle in talking with my kids about because it does feel like so many people are sticking their head in the sand and this boogeyman is REAL. At what point to we acknowledge that for decades we have been choosing to pursue and use technology that harms our environment instead of helps it. Okay, I’m sticking my head back in the sand now. 🙂

        I’m sure you’ve read Ishmael? That was the first book I ever read that made me stop and think deeply about our environment and how we address social issues.


      2. I hear you with the eye rolling. I’m getting a reputation at my 10 year-old’s school for being a bit too green. Apparently it’s “too extreme” to suggest forgoing the sale of bottled water at a one-hour dance and directing kids to the water fountain, located just outside the gym doors 😦

        I dream of a small house, too! (And I always feel my in-laws are highly disappointed with my non-consumer ways!)

        I find it difficult to know what to say to my kids, too. We have two disparate ages here – our daughter and son at 18 and 16 – and our youngest son at 10. I don’t share the extent of the problem with our 10 year old, because I feel that’s far too young to be weighted with worry like that. He knows it’s important to take care of the environment and he does quite often – even on his own – make good choices. But I know I won’t be able to protect him from all this for long. The older two obviously know what’s going on, but they seem to handle the knowledge in different ways. My daughter isn’t a worrier and is a pragmatic optimist like my husband. My 16 year-old son is like me – an over-thinker who dwells on things. I was very upset the day he came to me with that bad news, because firstly, I feel, at 16, that’s simply too much to have to worry about. And secondly, I knew – based on his personality – that it would really affect him. I think the extent of what you share with your kids depends on their personality and their age, but unfortunately, far too often, the decisions of what information they’re exposed to is taken out of our hands (by other kids, teachers, etc).

        I haven’t read Ishmael! I will check it out 🙂


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