The Perfect as the Enemy of the Good in Sustainable Living
Eating beef isn’t great for the environment. But can someone who occasionally snacks on cows still be in favour of conservation and other ecological causes?
Today I want to talk about a tweet. Or more accurately, the attitude to sustainability that this tweet represents. It occurred during the recent Ecological Society of Australia conference, and went roughly thus*.
Good to see only vegetarian food at ESA2018. We know that it’s not possible to be truly in support of conservation unless you cut meat out of your diet.
Now for starters, I want to make it clear that I am 100% in support of eating vegetarian. For those of us fortunate enough to be living in relative affluence, vegetarian diets are easy to maintain, generally cheaper (based on personal experience), and have a proven positive impact on the climate. I’m not completely vegetarian, but I take a lot of steps to minimise my diet’s climate footprint. It doesn’t take much.
What I am not in support of is the idea that a person cannot possibly be a proponent of conservation and other ecological causes, or that their other efforts in support of a better world are futile, if one facet of their life does not align perfectly with minimising their climate impact. This attitude can come in many forms, from the above tweet, to your friends who yell “HA, hypocrite!” when they discover a stray plastic bag in your room or see you take a taxi instead of biking one day.
To underline my frustration with this attitude, let’s look at a now somewhat-famous study that came out in mid-2017. The paper was a meta-analysis which drew up a list of lifestyle changes in developed countries which had the highest carbon footprint. You can read a few summaries of the paper here and here, and the paper itself here.
In the study, switching to a vegetarian (or ‘plant-based’, as the study refers to it) diet was listed as the step with the sixth-highest impact. To highlight the problems with the attitude I’m arguing against here, let’s rephrase the above tweet using the step with the third-highest.
Good to see that everyone put the effort in and drove to ESA2018. We know that it’s not possible to be truly in support of conservation unless you find an alternative to flying wherever physically possible.
If this were true, then there would be a lot less attendees at conferences like this every year. Now for the step with the highest.
Good to see more non-parent ecologists at ESA2018. We know that it’s not possible to be truly in support of conservation unless you don’t have children.
No comment needed, I feel.
Now admittedly, the two above are substantially more impactful on an individual’s lifestyle that turning vegetarian. But I know a few ecologists who have several children, and I would never dream of accusing them of not being in support of ecological causes.
Furthermore, I believe the propagation of the idea that anything less than perfect is insufficient can dissuade people from making lifestyle changes. The following quote is from Voltaire, and I think it applies here quite well.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Whether you’re an environmentalist, a conservationist, or an accountant, if you want to support the environment, absolutely you should encourage lifestyle changes to help reduce our impact on the planet. But please, let’s not spread the idea that anything less than total commitment is worthless.