Climate Hypocrisy and Imperfect Activism

Written by Hannah Dillon

Yesterday I purchased some cookies to sustain myself through a volcano hike that was subsequently cancelled as a result of an unseasonably aggressive (climate change-induced) cyclone. This morning, I munched on said cookies whilst learning about the horrific human rights abuses that are taking place in West Papua – partly as a result of mass-deforestation in the region which is being driven by unprecedented global demand for palm oil. (An area of forest thirty times the size of Manhattan was converted to plantations in West Papua between 2000 – 2019).

The irony of eating cookies which probably contain the palm oil that was grown in these plantations, whilst working for an organisation that is trying to protect those affected by them, is not lost on me. However, it has made me reflect on why many people find it so offensive when they realise that many of those who work on ‘climatey things’ are not, in fact, 100% certified carbon negative beings.

Indeed, highlighting climate hypocrisy and using it to render the arguments of climate activists redundant has been a favoured tactic of climate-denying journalists over recent years. They joy that they (Piers Morgan) experience when they find out that an activist they are interviewing doesn’t have a heat pump, or once took a flight, or had a great great grandparent that made money from fossil fuels, is palpable.

It is also absolutely infuriating, because of course most climate activists are hypocrites. They live under a system that forces them to rely on fossil fuel extraction to do almost everything, unless they are privileged and wealthy enough to afford or have access to alternatives. They eat foods that can most likely be traced back to deforestation and human rights abuses in places like West Papua, or droughts in places like Mexico. And yes, they probably occasionally purchase products that have plastic in them.

This is exactly why they have had to take to activism: they are fighting to change the system that they are trapped by, in order to ensure that it is not just the wealthy few who are granted access to low-carbon lifestyles whilst the climate crisis continues to unravel the lives and livelihoods of millions of people around the world. Activists should not be punished for daring to imagine a better and more equitable way of doing things. Living within your values is a privilege, and it is absolutely OK if sometimes you can’t afford or manage to do so.

The cookie incident has made me think about this a lot, because my personal carbon footprint has been far from optimal over the past few years. I have lost count of the number of flights that I have taken to move between islands or conservation projects in Indonesia. When on the ground, I have almost exclusively used fossil fuel-reliant transport to get around. If I’m in a rush and need someone else to do my laundry, it will definitely come back wrapped in plastic. Palm oil is in basically everything I touch – from shampoo to fuel to cooking oil. Even when diving and banging on about the importance of protecting coral reefs, we use fuel to power the boats that get us there, and to fill the tanks that we rely on to breathe. I have no doubt that the vegetables and rice I eat every day in an attempt to avoid fish and meat have been given a helping hand by pesticides.  The power I use to charge everything – and the minerals that make those devices work – do not come from places that sit well with my conscience.

Post-cyclone volcano views near Bajawa, Flores.

This may make me feel guilty on a daily basis, but I am learning that it does not invalidate the experiences I am having, or the work choices that I make (I currently freelance for two different environmental NGOs in addition to my role with The Iris Project). Nor does it detract from the lessons that I am learning along the way.  If anything, it makes them even more valuable, because it emphasises just how difficult it is to generate change on the frontlines of the climate crisis, in regions which are largely dependent on the products of extraction and deforestation, and the funds that they create. It is also putting me in touch with people who are working to come up with solutions to this conundrum every single day.

The suggestion that one cannot authentically work on climate-related projects until they completely clean up their lifestyle is a myth. It is based upon the narrative – propagated by the oil and gas industry – that we (normal people) are somehow responsible for the climate crisis, and the solution lies in our actions, rather than the actions of those who continue to prop up and subsidise fossil fuel extraction in the face of overwhelming evidence that they shouldn’t. And whilst I do believe in the power of individuals – especially when it comes to voting, protesting and signing petitions – I do not believe that those who do ‘good’ in their professional lives are somehow more responsible than those who don’t to atone for any environmental wrongs they might commit along the way. (Unless their professional life involves handing out advice to others which they personally ignore for reasons than are not related to finance or access, in which case – do better). As long as those who can are doing what they reasonably can, then it’s OK by me.

So yes, I am absolutely a hypocrite. And no, I do not believe that I will (or should) one day do something big and important enough in my working life to entirely obliterate every environmental impact that I have ever had. I don’t work on environmental projects because I think it somehow offsets my existence – I work on them because I enjoy the challenges, the joy, the rewards, the experiences, the people and the occasional achievements that they bring. I am also sufficiently heartbroken about the state of everything that I can’t imagine spending my time doing anything else.

So whilst I recognise that the need to point out climate hypocrisy is largely driven by people’s desire to feel better about themselves and the choices they make, I also think it is something that we all – myself included – need to get over.  Because focusing on hypocrisy is the MOTHER of all delay tactics. It is a way of avoiding engaging with the reality of the situation that we are facing, and it is entirely self-defeating because it distracts from the systemic change that needs to happen if we want to have even a passing chance of preventing catastrophic climate breakdown. If the world was perfect, we wouldn’t need activists. And if all activists were able to be perfect, they probably wouldn’t have anything left to fight for.

Barefoot Conservation Camp, Arborek, West Papua. Reached by plane, ferry and (fossil fuel powered) boat.

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