Don’t Be An Eco-Jerk

Posted on January 20, 2010 by Courtney

Child and adult hands holding new plant

Environmentalism, I think we can all agree, is about many things. Responsibility. Health. Saving money, in many cases. Making sure future generations don’t have to struggle to survive in a wasteland. Although it’s controversial in many settings, at its heart, environmentalism is all about peace and love.

So why does it cause so much fighting?

This New York Times article claims that therapists all over the country are seeing more and more couples who argue over green living. One member of a couple might get angry at the other for taking too long in the shower, or forgetting to recycle the pizza box, or suggesting a restaurant that doesn’t serve locally grown food. Before long, that person starts to feel like they’re under attack all the time, even if they start to change their habits, and is probably going to lash out in retaliation. What follows is most likely not going to be pretty.

We’ve talked about eco-etiquette here before — the ever-difficult struggle to balance what one thinks is right with the need to be polite in order to maintain good relationships. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially when you’re trying to remain on good terms with someone who simply does not care. It’s hard to keep your mouth shut when you spend time with people who eat off paper plates for every meal, for example. (TRUST ME on that one.) But when you start lobbing insults and judgments, nobody wins. You’ll be on the outs with your loved ones, and no one’s going to change their habits if they feel shamed into doing so.

The therapists’ advice? Lead by example. When your guests come over, let them see you compost your food scraps and clean up the table with a reusable cloth. If someone notices your Seventh Generation dish soap, let them know where you got it. If someone compliments the food, tell them it was made with organic ingredients.

If you really feel like you need to say something, be gentle. Start with the small things people can do to lessen their impact. Going green shouldn’t be like a crash diet, where you’re good for a couple of days but then revert back to old habits. It should be a lifestyle change, something that starts off small and builds up as you can handle it. Remember that when you’re talking to environmental newbies.

For many people, environmentalism isn’t something they’re opposed to; it’s just something they don’t know how to do. You can be that person who shows them that it’s not some loony lifestyle embraced only by hippies and holier-than-thous. It’s something we can all do, and while this is important work we’re doing here, there’s no need to start fights with people about it. As someone whose boyfriend recently rained down The Shame upon her for owning an electric blanket, trust me — everyone will be happier if you practice a little restraint.

Remember: You can’t control what other people do, you can only control what you do. Peace and love, dear readers. Peace and love.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this, thanks! I totally agree with you about setting the example and being gentle in case we need to tell someone (nicely) off about their non-green habits. It can be a challenge at home especially if some of the people you live with can be wasteful and indifferent at times. I really liked this post, I’m sharing it! thanks!

    January 20th, 2010 at 6:03 am
    Comment by zsa zsa
  2. Well said, Courtney. Excellent points, all.

    As for the electric blanket, I’ll give you a pass on that every once in a while. In the dead of winter, it can feel impossible to get warm, and I don’t blame you for wanting a little help on that now and then!

    January 20th, 2010 at 1:55 pm
    Comment by stefanie
  3. I’ve found that with at least one person in my life, environmentalism is tied up with everything he hates about liberals. I tried the argument that you can’t spell “conservative” without “conserve” but it didn’t fly.

    Made me wistful for the old fashioned “give a hoot, don’t pollute.” That never got political, did it?

    January 20th, 2010 at 7:58 pm
    Comment by Noelle
  4. I think these are good tips for living period and not just green living. Good post, Courtney.

    January 20th, 2010 at 8:14 pm
    Comment by The Modern Gal
  5. Yeah, I agree with MG – I think this advice is wonderful and works not just for green living, but for other areas of conflict too. People don’t generally tend to make positive changes as a result of being talked down to or nagged. But positive reinforcement and gentle example can go a long long way.

    January 21st, 2010 at 10:41 am
    Comment by Allie
  6. Oh my. That post about eco-etiquette.
    Quite frankly, I am baffled people use paper plates at home!
    Who does that???? I never saw anyone doing that except when they ordered take-out (and received it on those plates)
    And paper cups in the bathroom!
    Over here (Europe), even non-environmentally conscious people use proper dishes….
    That said, bashing people and acting as if you’re superior won’t help. Be nice, buy them nice presents, talk about it and be an example.

    January 22nd, 2010 at 5:34 am
    Comment by PrutsPrinses
  7. Singled out! Dang!

    January 29th, 2010 at 3:29 pm
    Comment by mickey
  8. [...] Courtney from The Greenists says that the best thing we can do is lead by example: …while this is important work we’re [...]

    February 4th, 2010 at 4:38 pm
    Pingback by Disagreeing on Green Values: Why Michael Thinks I’m Ned Flanders | Fake Plastic Fish
  9. I live with a room mate who is into the environmentalism / green religion and it is hard to get along. He can’t stand the smell of meat, but I have to eat. His beliefs are mystical and spiritual and it goes beyond just recycling, which even that has been proven to not be a rational, but emotional activity. I’m not mystical which excludes more than just religion, so I have high standards for rationality and almost didn’t move in when I learned he was into global warming, which has been hijacked by not just the green religion but also socialists. I’m not going to try to convince him his religion is wrong since I doubt he would be open to that, but I don’t even think he realizes it is a religion or how he is treating other people who violate his beliefs, which is not very nicely. He also wants to pass laws to that can be used to impose his religion through global warming, which is crossing the line from interacting with people using reason vs. Acting like an animal and simply initiating force.

    April 7th, 2011 at 10:20 am
    Comment by Yogi the Bear
  10. [...] controversial in many settings, at its heart, environmentalism is all about peace and love. So why does it cause so much fighting? Please Share and [...]

    January 12th, 2012 at 7:22 pm
    Pingback by Quick Green Reads For The Weekend Volume 150. | The Good Human
  11. I totally agree that one small effort would make a big difference in decreasing pollution and waste when put into habit. I am also an advocate of green living and I thank you for posting this information for everyone else to see.

    May 18th, 2012 at 6:30 am
    Comment by Eula

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