Supermarket Vigilante

I used the term supermarket vigilante in my inaugural post, Green, in which I admitted to harbouring intolerant thoughts about my fellow shoppers, and having to bite my tongue lest I scold someone for their reckless environmental faux pas (such as — gasp! — bagging single items of produce), but I have to start this post by saying I’m quite certain Supermarket Vigilante is the wrong title.

In the first place, I’m not really going to be talking about supermarkets per se.

And in the second place, since writing my first post, I’ve taken the time to look up the word vigilante.

(Note to self: don’t presume to know the meaning of words. Maybe from now on — just to be on the safe side — look up anything over eight letters).

According to a vigilante is a person who takes the law into their own hands to “suppress and punish crime summarily”, usually due to ineffective governmental authority.

So yes, ahem … a person who professes to be teetering on the edge of becoming a supermarket vigilante is suddenly sounding a whole heckuva lot more, um … strident … than someone who is simply being vigilant or is practicing vigilance. After all, environmental faux pas aside, it’s not *actually* against the law to bag a single produce item, is it?

But if vigilante isn’t the right word, then what word(s) would convey what I’m teetering on the edge of?

Let’s see …

Busybody comes to mind.

There’s know-it-all.

And I’d be remiss if I left out insufferable haranguer.

(Can you see why I chose to leave vigilante in place in the title of this post?)

Anyhoo …

(Note to self: upon pain of death, do not use the word anyhoo ever. again.)

Moving right along … I’m sure most of you will recognize the message in the above World War II public service poster. This particular one is American, but exhortative messages, as seen in these war posters, were common around the world, as governments everywhere urged citizens to do their part for the war effort, to think about their actions, large and small, and consider the ripple effects those actions could have.

Plant a garden! people were told. Don’t waste food! Reuse and recycle! Conserve! Do without! Don’t hoard! Car pool! (because if you don’t, you are, in essence, riding with HITLER!).

Looking back on all this makes me wonder:  was it possible to get everyone or nearly everyone on board with all of that? Is it ever possible to get 100% participation in choices that can be seen as infringing on a person’s freedom or lifestyle? And if it wasn’t possible, what was it like during the war years for people who chose, for one reason or another, not to get with the program?

Were they chastised, gently or otherwise, and told to step it up a notch? Did the polite societal norm of mind-your-own-business get put on the back burner for the sake of societal good?

So here’s what I’ve been wondering: can we draw an analogy between war and global warming? Do both represent a clear-and-present danger in which life-as-we-know-it is something we need to actively work to protect? And if so, are we to the point in the climate crisis where the bare-minimum, easy-to-do, no-brainer behaviours should simply be expected? Have there been enough governmental advisories (on recycling and saving energy and water, for example), and has climate change been in the news often enough such that we should all simply be expected to know and to act accordingly?

And by extension, if people are not connecting the dots between their actions and the massive problems we face, should those of us who are inches from panic working extremely hard to keep calm and carry on deeply worried purposefully set out to have some serious conversations with oblivious insouciant happy-go-lucky devil-may-care friends, family, and neighbours, as well as random strangers we encounter in our day-to-day lives?

For example:

Should I be talking to my neighbour about the fact that their air conditioner runs all. day. long. even when the house is completely empty? Can I gently point out that their three children’s right to live on a less-than-completely-crippled Earth far outweighs their desire to come home from their eight-hour workday to an already-cold house?

Is it okay to ask my friend why she doesn’t use a refillable water bottle when she goes biking? Can I share some of these disturbing facts about bottled water and assure her it’s really not that hard to use a refillable bottle?

Can I pull the kindergarten teacher aside, and tell her that I have never — not once! — gone into school (and goodness knows I’ve been there a lot over the past four years!) and seen her without her morning’s (disposable) cup of Tim Horton’s coffee? Can I do the math for her and tell her that 4 years X 194 school days = 776 cups that she alone has garbaged? (And that that doesn’t even include her afternoon coffees, which I’ve had numerous occasions to observe, as well as the fact that this is only counting the four years I’ve been watching? (in a *totally* non-stalkerish manner 😉 )).

Just so it’s clear: I’m not looking for a free pass to start haranguing everyone I deem to be committing an environmental crime. Truthfully, I’m not even sure if the consensus is, Yes, we who are deeply concerned should all go forth and become environmental vigilantes (minus the arresting part, obviously, but yes, conveniently ignoring the fact that disposable cups, bottled water, and the act of wasting electricity are not illegal items or activities), that I would be able to do so. I’m usually quiet and polite, I rarely speak unless provoked or impassioned, and even then, I often trip over my words and embarrass myself.

But for the sake of our precarious planet, is it worth a try? Should gumption be gathered up and polite mind-your-own-business be tossed out the window? Can a geekish (and politely delivered) conveyance of facts and figures, numbers and scope, have any hope of swaying someone’s lifestyle? Can it counteract a head-in-the-sand or hmmmmm, I can’t hear you! mentality? Is the problem that people don’t know the numbers, or that they know the numbers but simply don’t care? Or is this simply a too-little too-late slippery slope to a busybody society in which neighbours slam doors, friends no longer pick up the phone, teachers duck into classrooms when they espy you coming down the hall, and supermarket managers whisk you aside and tell you to stop bothering the other customers?

16 thoughts on “Supermarket Vigilante

  1. Oh, I dunno. (How’s that for taking a stand?)

    Maybe I’ll just ask some questions back: What is it really that you are worrying about? Why is someone else’s possible discomfort of more importance than yours? Because, clearly, your (very justified) worries about the state of the planet are causing you discomfort. What other discomfort might you experience if you voice your concerns/objections–and is that discomfort greater or lesser than the one you’re experiencing when you see people doing things that impact the world all of us live in?

    Can you tell I’ve been seeing a therapist?

    At my last session with said therapist, it was suggested to me that we cannot become as powerful as we might like to be until we become fully authentic. Until we speak our truth able to accept all possible consequences for doing so. Perhaps this seems a foolish or naive way to be in the world–but it’s a way I’m giving serious consideration to. The more I look at why I hold my tongue, the more I realize the price I–and sometimes others–pay for doing so.

    Now, I don’t think this gives one license to be an a**hole. (A large part of that session was consumed with questions about what constitutes one.) I think I’m coming to believe that being one has much more to do with how one says something than with what one says. I can’t imagine you ever being one. There’s a difference between rolling your eyes and sneering at that teacher and making a sarcastic crack about her coffee habits and opening a conversation about them with, say, a question. Or a statement that you don’t mean to offend, but something has been troubling you that you’d like to share.

    Maybe start small and see what happens? Start with someone you know, over an issue that isn’t sacred, and see how it feels. You might find yourself working your way up to that stranger in the produce section before you know it. 🙂


    1. “I dunno” is pretty much exactly what I expected to hear from this post 🙂

      “What am I worrying about” is a very good question. I worry far too much about causing offence, and making people feel bad. I worry about being thought of as a know-it-all or a buttinski, poking my nose into other people’s concerns, despite the fact that other people’s actions (all legal and technically not my business!) are causing such damage to a planet we all have to share. (This simmering annoyance/anger is really not very good for me!) I also worry about becoming “that” mom, even though I’m pretty sure the horse is already out of the barn on that one! (I went to a PTO fundraising meeting a couple of weeks ago in order to raise some concerns (voice shaking), and it was pretty clear that people knew already what I stood for). But maybe it’s okay to be “that” mom…maybe “that” mom is at least not a boring mom? Because being a boring mom is also something I worry about! I also have a huge fear of being inaccurate, or being flat-out wrong! Hmmm…I think I will join you (vicariously) in therapy 😉

      “The more I look at why I hold my tongue, the more I realize the price I–and sometimes others–pay for doing so”. This is such a powerful statement, Rita. Far too often, in the past, I would keep quiet, or, I would speak the truth, but a tempered version of the truth, in order to spare someone’s feelings. The older I get, the more I think this is a disservice to both parties. I think – for things that people have control over, and can reasonably work to change – that an honest assessment of the facts does more good than silence or a tempered version of the truth. Related to this, and as a teacher you’ve probably heard of this: research has shown that unwarranted praise does more harm than good, and that people *know* when they’ve done a lousy job, and giving them a pat on the back and telling them “good work” actually makes them feel worse. I think I will follow your advice and start small, start with a friend, and start with the statement “I don’t mean to offend…it’s totally not my business…but…” Because who knows? perhaps they’ve never heard of the huge impact bottled water (for example) has on the environment! It’s unlikely, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility, and then I will know I at least spoke my mind and tried!

      (And I have no idea why – all of a sudden – your comments are being held for moderation. I had issues with the mechanics of commenting on the blog for months, but I thought it was fixed … 😦 )


      1. Well, in part because I was thinking about your post, I had a conversation with Cane last night about recycling and AC use and why there is no common sense of urgency about what’s happening to our climate. I brought it up because he is not very vigilante about recycling (and a few other things), and I just really wanted to understand why.

        I think there are a few factors. Perhaps the biggest is feeling that our individual efforts don’t really make a difference–because there is no common sense of urgency. What a chicken-egg thing! I think age might also be one. Not just in the sense of “it won’t get that bad in my lifetime” and “it’s so different from how I grew up,” but also: “it’s harder for me to adapt as I’m getting older” (particularly with regard to AC, which I understand, as I seem to be having a harder time dealing with heat than I used to).

        I find your comparison to victory gardens interesting and think there’s something to it, and Kate’s observation that that program had the full backing of the government. Here is the US, the issue of climate change has somehow become polarized along political lines (as has everything else), so there’s very little rational conversation based in fact and I think we’ve lost all sense that there can be some kind of good that is common to all of us. It’s infuriating and frustrating to me, and if I’m in the right (well, wrong) mood, it can be easy to say, “F-it. I’m just going to do what everyone else does and do what’s convenient, because we’re all going to Hell in a hand basket (made of plastic) anyway.” I’m worried we will only remember our commonality in the face of disaster (such as happened briefly here after 9-11) and in the case of this issue, it will be too little too late. The time to raise the alarms was 25 years ago. I remember them being raised, but no one really heard them. I think this issue is so huge and so scary that we are stuck in massive denial. And that’s why you’re likely to get pushback if you speak up. You will touch on people’s fears, and that never feels good. But if you do so, it will be about them, not you. (Another thing I am learning.) Sometimes we need to feel discomfort in order to make necessary change. (Hoo boy, have I been getting some lessons in that! Wait, “hoo boy” is, I am sure, much more egregious than anyhoo. But not as egregious as plastic water bottles, so I’m going to let it stay.)


      2. I like the fact that my post played a role in spurring on a conversation with Cane, and I’m not surprised to hear the factors he lists as being deterrents to change, especially the one about individual efforts not making a difference. This is the one that will sometimes make even me feel like “F-it” why am I bothering…and at times like these, it’s only my very well-developed sense of obstinacy that makes me continue, regardless.

        Laughing at the egregiousness of hoo-boy vs anyhoo … thanks for that, Rita 🙂


  2. Wow.

    I love that your questions make me think. I love that Rita’s responses are beautifully written and overflowing with wisdom and grace.

    Anywhoo (I like it)…here’s my little blather:

    I think one thing that happened in WWII that hasn’t happened in yet is that we had the government’s propaganda machine really pushing for people to make the necessary sacrifices. We also had a very different generation (these were the same people who lived through the Depression after all) who knew what it meant to make do and knew that life wasn’t always sunshine and happiness. While the baby boomers, gen x’ers, and millennials each have their qualities, none of us are wired for self-sacrifice and hardship. Sadly, while the effects of our behavior are already being seen, I don’t think they’re drastic or personally relatable enough to pull most individuals out of their bubble.

    In a more practical vein, I purchased a reusable Starbucks mug (as a Christmas thank you) for the teacher who always seemed to have a disposable cup and added a note that I noticed she liked their coffee and hoped this would keep it warmer than her disposable cups.

    I think as long as you can find a way to say it kindly and diplomatically (and not get too put off when they ignore you because that’s a very real possibility) you should share your passion and knowledge with others.


    1. You bring up some really good points, Kate. I think the phrase “government propaganda machine” highlights a very important difference. There was, most definitely, a government propaganda machine in WWII. And now, thinking hard on our present-day situation, I’m wondering … is it actually our governments that are now telling us to save energy (for example), or is it our power companies that are sending out fliers? Global warming is in the news, and is mentioned in presidential speeches, but (aside from some messages about emergency preparedness, which I think do come from the government) it really isn’t in any widespread “government-speak” is it? (Heck, in Florida, government officials are seemingly even banned from referring to it at all!). So if we’re getting information about it (either facts about the scope of the problem, or what measures we can take to do our small part to mitigate the problem), we either have to be watching the news, or seeking out the information ourselves (on the internet or elsewhere), both of which are active forms of informing ourselves, rather than any ubiquitous government message that is widespread enough to put us all in the loop. (OR, we have to be living in an über-green place, like Vancouver for example, where the municipal government is the government body sending out the messages).

      “A different generation…who knew what it meant to make do and knew that life wasn’t always sunshine and happiness”. Yes, I completely agree with this statement, but I’m not sure that they were necessarily “wired” for self-sacrifice and hardship. I think it’s reasonable to say that people in WWII were “primed” for sacrifice, partly because they had been through the Depression, and partly because they simply lived in a time when *convenience* was not yet king, and when mass consumerism of the scale we have now didn’t really exist. I think that, evolutionarily speaking, we’re perhaps all “wired” to take the easy route: we would rather sit than exercise because we’re wired to conserve energy, and by extension, I think the argument could be made that when presented with the choice of doing things a convenient way or doing things a difficult way, one would have to fight the instinctual urge to take the easy route. I think that we are – to a degree – the product of our circumstances, and that because all of us (ALL generations, including our parents and grandparents who went through the war) have now gone through decades of convenience and consumerism that the differences between the generations are no longer necessarily at play. Generally speaking, I think we’ve all become soft. Our generation has never been asked for large-scale sacrifice, but I think the memory of sacrifice in the older generations is wearing thin, and now, they’re largely unwilling to sacrifice. Perhaps this is tempered with a belief that they’ve “paid their dues” and no more should be asked of them? My in-laws, for example, who were young in WWII (one in Canada, one in Germany) and who lived through extreme privation, don’t seem willing to endure any sort of hardship or self-sacrifice. I know if I brought out a list of all the things one could personally do to reduce one’s carbon footprint, they would be very unwilling to drop their consumerist ways and adopt a more modest lifestyle.

      “Sadly, while the effects of our behavior are already being seen, I don’t think they’re drastic or personally relatable enough to pull most individuals out of their bubble”. I think this perhaps speaks to the biggest flaw in my analogy between war and global warming. If a bomb destroys your house it’s easy to recognize the enemy and lay the blame. A tornado destroying your house? Tornadoes have destroyed houses long before we worried about global warming. Now, if a tornado destroys your house are you going to be thinking, well, global warming is causing MORE tornadoes than ever before, and this PARTICULAR one wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for climate change? or are you simply going to think, I live in tornado alley; tornadoes are a sad fact of life. It currently makes it very easy for deniers to make their claims, and by the time the seas rise enough for Florida to be under water it’ll be too late 😦

      I love the diplomatic note you enclosed with your teacher’s gift! I wish I had had the foresight to give the kindergarten teacher a Starbucks mug when she was my son’s teacher. Now that he’s in grade 4 it would seem very odd if I presented her with a mug …


      1. Give her the mug anyway. Make it one of a brand you personally like (if you use a travel mug for hot drinks) and say that you noticed she always has her coffee and you think this mug is so wonderful and by the way, your son still mentions his happy memories of kindergarten (if that’s not an outright lie). I have given travel mugs successfully, and although I felt awkward about doing it, I did see the mugs getting used!

        (But my parents–even though they’re quite environmentally conscious and concerned about toxins–don’t use the nice stainless steel water bottles we got them, except for picnics. They carry drinking water in their cars at all times, in plastic bottles they’ve been reusing for years! AUGH!! I’m thinking of speaking to them about it again before my son visits them by himself this summer; I don’t want him drinking hot-plastic water, and he doesn’t want to, either–still complaining about last summer.)


      2. Thanks for the encouragement, ‘Becca – I will see if I can figure out some way to get her a mug 🙂 . We’ve had good success with the ones from Starbucks, though mine is a freebie my husband got from a work contractor at least 18 years ago! (I take it with me whenever I think we might end up stopping along the way for coffee, and even after all that use it’s still going strong!)

        Good luck with speaking to your parents about the plastic bottles left in the car…I don’t know if they’re refilling disposable bottles or leaving reusable plastic ones in a hot vehicle, but either way, it’s not a good thing! Perhaps you could also simply have your son take his own stainless bottle when he goes for his visit. My ten year-old is pretty good about taking care of his own water bottle, and your son has the added imperative of not wanting a repeat of last summer!


      3. They’re disposable plastic bottles. Blech.

        Having my son bring his water bottle is an excellent idea. It’s especially safe because he has a couple of extras, so if he forgets to bring home the one he takes, we can use one of the others in his lunch for day camp after he gets back.


  3. I think it’s totally reasonable to talk with your neighbors about the joys of a timer thermostat. They may not be aware that their AC is working so hard all day, since they aren’t there to hear it. Rather than talk about climate change, I’d take the “It’ll save you so much money!” angle. If they are fans of new technologies, wait until tomorrow when I’m publishing a guest post about new gadgets and apps that optimize your climate control–you can send them the link!

    I think you should ask your friend why she doesn’t use a refillable water bottle and listen to her answer before you decide what else to say. I doubt that she’ll have an inarguably good reason for the disposable bottles, but until you hear her reasoning you won’t know what tactic will best shift her to greener habits.


    1. I’m so glad you wrote in, ‘Becca, because the money angle is PERFECT! I think it was two, maybe three years ago … my husband had a discussion with our neighbour about the a/c running all day (I’m not sure who initiated the conversation and for what purpose, or if they were just chatting) and our neighbour (the man) was bemoaning the ginormous amount of money he was paying for electricity, but he said he couldn’t do anything about it because his wife *needed* to be cold … Enter all this new technology!! I am absolutely going to suggest one of those new thermostats (or better yet, I’ll ask my husband to mention it, since he’s the techie around here 😉 ).

      And asking and then listening is always a good approach to take; I think this might work well with this friend in particular, as I have the feeling she might just dig in her heels if I come at it with a preaching tone. She and her husband are wonderful people, and somewhat environmentally conscious, but based on what I’ve heard the husband say, I’m reasonably sure they wholeheartedly believe that recycling the plastic bottles makes their regular use perfectly ok.


  4. Hi Marion!
    An interesting discussion, thanks for sparking it.
    My experience is that in order for the other person to be able to hear what we’re saying, we often have to make sure that we put across our message in a way that doesn’t leave them feeling attacked and defensive. So a kind and thoughtful act like giving a mug of a tip will usually be more effective in nudging someone to think differently, or at least to being to question their habits, than a more direct but potentially more threatening approach.
    I think it’s always worth starting by thinking where we want to end up. Which isn’t usually having a row with someone – that just shuts the whole thing down before it’s got started. No, what we usually want is a dialogue (but that has to involve us listening rather than thinking we already have the answer).
    I’ve always been attracted by the notion that we ourselves have to ‘be the change we want to see’. In other words, lead by example, and effect change with love rather than hectoring. Which is kind of what I’m trying to do in my own blog, where I try hard to focus on positive things and not the negatives. Though my goodness sometimes that really is hard!


    1. Thanks for chiming in, Deborah! My mother used to tell me “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” … which is exactly the point you’re making, and with which I agree wholeheartedly. I’m also a big believer in “be the change you want to see”, and this is generally how I live my life, quietly (other than in this blog 😉 ) trying to set a positive example: my friend with the disposable water bottles can see I use a reusable bottle; the teacher I’ve mentioned can see the to-go mug I bring when I come into the school to work in the library. I don’t have it in me to hector people; they don’t have a clue that I inwardly sigh every time I see them with their disposable things. And yet I admit I find the snail’s pace of change that comes from “be the example” enormously frustrating. I simply don’t *get* that people are not getting the message, that *everyone* is not recognizing the seriousness of the problem and doing every little thing they can to avert what’s coming, especially when these little things are so easy to do, and can add up enormously if we ALL do them. And yes, I know that must come off as incredibly intolerant and negative …

      You DO have a very positive blog, and I’m glad you’re writing it 🙂


      1. Hi Marian, I wrote a long reply to your response yesterday evening, only for it to be swallowed up somewhere into the ether, and I didn’t have the energy left to re-do it, so sorry for that!
        I do like your mum’s honey and vinegar saying, so true! And I absolutely share your frustration with the slow pace of change (I’ve been at this since about 1970, so I have a fair few years of it under my belt). And with our recent election results, I have completely lost any hope or expectation of government (national or local) leading in any way at all on it. So it’s back to the small-scale, local stuff, and as much activism as I can manage (which honestly these days isn’t a huge amount).
        I’m quite sure that in real life you come over as neither intolerant nor negative. But remember its the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl – sometimes we do have to say things others don’t want to hear, and that others find uncomfortable. I have a very good friend who over the years has said many of those things to me, which though they didn’t always take root straight away, over the years have made a massive difference to how I think as important, how I act.
        I hope you can take heart from that.
        Have you read much about the Transition movement? if so, you’ll be familiar with their message of hope and positivity. If not, you may find it interesting and a useful perspective.
        All the best, Deborah


      2. Hi Deborah 🙂
        I have had comments swallowed by the internet as well; I know exactly how frustrating and annoying that is! Thank you so much for taking the time to recreate at least some of what I assume you initially wrote.

        “The grit in the oyster makes the pearl” – this is a lovely analogy. I know that I would much rather people tell me, truthfully, when I’m doing something wrong/annoying/unthinking/silly/wasteful/etc (rather than just growling behind my back) so I at least have an opportunity to make positive change. And this IS something I’m quite prepared to do (and have done!) with my immediate family, but for some reason I have a very difficult time when it comes to extended family and friends, even those I’ve known for a lifetime. This is definitely something I need to gather gumption on! We are coming up on an October federal election ourselves, and it would greatly surprise me if we elected anything other than the status quo (the right leaning conservatives); I think we will find ourselves in your boat – reconciling ourselves to small-scale and local change.

        I had never before heard of the Transition movement! I just Googled it, and you’re right – I think I will find some hope and positivity there. Thank you, Deborah, I’m so glad you told me about it!!


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