Because Life is Really, Really Good: Why Be a Green Hedonist?

| December 6, 2013 | 6 Comments

It happens from time to time.

An environmental activist of some sort will give me the stink eye (I know, I know, that’s just the way his face looks) and tell me that I’m doing the planet a grave disservice by advocating a life that puts a high priority on pleasure.  Only it doesn’t sound anywhere near that nice coming out of his mouth.

How can you eat that honey? Don’t you know those bees were enslaved for us?  Don’t you know we have to stop burning coal and using natural gas this very minute?  The world is teetering on the edge of the point of no return, and you’re still suggesting we drink coffee and eat out and buy cheese? What the hell is wrong with you?

So, for the record, here’s what the hell is wrong with me. 

Wait, let me pour another cup of coffee first. Okay, I’m back.

I have a lot of respect for any person who takes conscious action to try to solve the world’s gazillion problems.  From the scary but brilliant Derrick Jensen advocating revolution, violent if need be, to the gorgeous little sustainable boutique in my town selling upcycled jeans and earrings, and everything in between, I love them all.  It makes my eyes light up to see anyone making an effort to understand just how messed up the world is, and trying to take steps — large or small — to do something, anything.

But I don’t think we all have to do it the same way; we are not a one-size-fits-all civilization.  It’s not that I don’t see the urgency of the situation we’re in – trust me, I do.  But we are all coming into this from different places and perspectives, with differing levels of ability – and willingness – to take action.  There is no one right way.  I don’t think we all have to put on sackcloth and ashes in order to prove we are part of the solution – nor do I approve of the All Doom All the Time model of changing human behavior.

You know the model I’m talking about. The dialogue might as well go like this:  “Look at our beautiful polar bear in the video.  So wild, so perfect.  Even better, look at her adorable baby polar bears…the way they tumble and play in the snow just melts your heart, doesn’t it?  Well, then, man up.  If you’re not picketing in front of the local utility, tithing to the NRDC, driving a hybrid car, you are part of the problem.  Don’t you know that the greenhouses gases are melting the polar ice cap?  YOU HAVE TO GET MOVING OR YOU ARE KILLING THESE ADORABLE BABY POLAR BEARS!  ICE CAP MELTERS!   POLAR BEAR KILLERS!”

Honestly, it’s everywhere.  And it might work to get some people off the dime, if they’ve been living under a rock and/or if they are particularly sensitive to criticism and judgment from people they don’t know.

But for every person that makes a change based on these fear-based and guilt-based tactics, I believe at least 10 more will be permanently turned off to doing ANYTHING.  Not because they (we) are bad people, but because it just isn’t that easy.

Fracking is bad.  Having natural gas in our homes when it’s ten below is good.  Mountaintop removal is bad.  Having electricity to power the factory where you earn your salary is good.  Wind power? Fantastic!  Oh wait, too many birds and bats are getting minced.  And I would love to support that solar array that would power my whole town, but please don’t put it anywhere I can see it, okay?

There are no simple answers.  There is no magic bullet to fix things.  There are mainly small steps, with increasing degrees of agility, starting at the place where we are.  So while this may be totally unacceptable in the eyes of an uber-environmentalist, here’s what’s important, in my view:

1.  I’d like for people to know what their life costs.  To have people look around and get an idea of what it takes to create the life they currently have. Not a guilt trip – just look, and learn.  Those blueberries from Chile, that dress made in a factory in Pakistan, that duck liver paté.  Having the guts to learn about what we consume, and determine whether its real cost fits with your values.  It may, it may not, but it’s the knowing that’s important.

2.  Starting small is fine, and if it works, we can ease our way up.  I mean, starting very small.  Did you know that if every U.S. home replaced just ONE light bulb with an energy efficient (compact fluorescent or LED) bulb, it would save enough energy to light 3 million homes for a year, save about $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year?  One lousy bulb. I can handle that.

3. Taking the shotgun approach spreads ideas further and faster.  I am peppered every day with new ideas people are having to waste less, spend less, and do more good in the world.  Turning abandoned city lots into community gardens.  Upcycling almost anything into art.  Making their own household cleaners free of carcinogens.  Learning and sharing basic skills like fixing things, rather than trashing everything if it breaks (and replacing it with cheap plastic junk that will then break within a year)

Putting as many ideas on the table as we can — as many tools as we can — allows people to choose what they think they can best do, and do it.  If you can reduce your factory meat consumption, great.  If you can plant a food garden in a hay bale in the yard, great.  Buy less cheap crap made in China, find out if there’s a solar garden starting up in your area, buy carbon offsets, swear off plastic grocery bags, drive a Tesla, change a lightbulb with or without help,** dismantle a dam in the dark of night to free the salmon, all great too.  My mantra is start where you are, and do what you can.

4. Doing the math can really be an eye-opener.  As I often share here, doing the right thing, greenwise, can free up a pretty big chunk of change to change your life.  Giving up a few wasteful habits (that I needed to give up anyway and did not miss) for a few years allowed me to own the home I live in, support the people I love, and get out of the rat race, which in turn saves me a ton of wear and tear on my body, vehicle, and peace of mind.

5. It’s worth trading a few life-hours for something else that matters more.  Example:  I’ve given up almost all television.  It just burns up too much life.  If I complain that I haven’t got a half-hour to cook a meal from scratch, or spend time with a friend that just needs someone to sit with her and listen, but I can discuss ad nauseum the details of the last two years of Finding Bigfoot, there really IS something wrong with me.  That’s not who I want to be.  That’s not who I want the kids in my life to emulate.

6.Though it sounds weird, the simple fact is that Less can be so much better than More.  In my house, we’ve pretty much agreed that a little of something really great is far better than a lot of something mediocre.  Quick quiz:  What’s better, a pound of really good local/humane/organic cheese or five pounds of cheap crap cheesefood?  Unless you’re in a Verizon commercial, where more is always better, or unless you’re severely calorie-deficient, you may find, as we did, that a smaller quantity of something amazing is infinitely preferable.

If it’s true that the only real yardstick of whether we want to save ourselves from environmental catastrophe is if we sell our cars, smash all our incandescent light bulbs, and go vegan, then many folks will simply give up trying.  Is it better to have a few obsessed people working on change, or have a massive army of people willing to help a little, then a little more, then a little more?

So back to the accusation that I’m encouraging people to be “frivolous” when we are in such an intractable mess, hope is almost gone, and they should be going all-out to change.

Although what we probably need is a planetful of activists at this point, it simply is not going to happen.  We are not all cut out to be activists.  But we can all do some small Something that helps push back against the tide of disaster.  And if that Something is fun, rewarding, or delicious, people are more likely to do it.  I think of green hedonism as a gateway drug to a bigger, richer, more sustainable life.

And me?  I’m your dealer.  Enjoy.


 {Warning: Even more profanity than usual}

“People sometimes ask me, ‘If things are so bad, why don’t you just kill yourself?’ The answer is that life is really, really good. I am a complex enough being that I can hold in my heart the understanding that we are really, really fucked, and at the same time that life is really, really good. I am full of rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and a thousand other feelings. We are really fucked. Life is still really good.”

From Beyond Hope by Derrick Jensen
Published in the May/June 2006 issue of Orion magazine


**My current favorite:
How many hipsters does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
It’s this number; you’ve probably never heard of it.



Category: Sustainable

Comments (6)

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  1. Kay from K-town says:

    Wow… are incredibly wise. I love your approach. You can be my gh dealer anyday.

  2. Stacy says:

    Brilliant! Love it!

  3. Iforonwy says:

    Do the small things. This was the mantra of St David, the patron saint of the small nation that I belong to.

    Little by little for me. Just off to read the solar meter to see how much (or little) we have generated this week. If we all did a little then it would grow into a lot.

    • greenhedonist says:

      Thank you. I am delighted that the small things can add up to the big things – for example, it is because we changed lightbulbs, learned how to insulate, save water, cut out soul-less spending etc. that we were able to finally install solar here too. Money saved added up and added up, and suddenly we were able to purchase something that now saves us an incredible amount of money (and pollution). Every bit counts.

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