The word hypocrite makes my blood boil, truly. My eyebrows furrow and I get a glint in my eye, as I prepare my defensive speech.
I don’t think I’m the sole person to react this way. Being called a hypocrite directly attacks a person’s values and identity.
And yet here I am, acknowledging that I am a hypocrite.
Why? Because I don’t live a carbon neutral life.
Over the last few months, climate activists around the world have been called hypocrites, from business leaders to celebrities to regular people on the street.
My own experience has been mostly from friends and acquaintances. People question why I am not fully vegetarian or how I can justify flying to Greece to visit my parents or to go on holiday. It isn’t done with malice, at least in my life, but it is still incredibly frustrating. It’s almost as though people are awaiting to go “ah hah! gotcha” when I confess some non-environmental behaviour.
At first, it brought me a lot of shame. Why was I flying back to Greece for a summer holiday and polluting the environment? Why did I eat that piece of salmon two weeks ago? Why did I forget my reusable water bottle and have to buy a plastic one?
After the shame comes anger. Why am I making sacrifices to live a certain way when I’m just a drop in the ocean? Why should I choose not to visit my family when hundreds of thousands of people are flying across Europe for the weekend?
Then comes the realisation. I can never live 100 percent by my values under the current system.
Our society has been built upon fossil fuels and high levels of consumption. Whether I am a climate activist or not, I live in the same society as everybody else and am limited by the same boundaries. Unless I go live off the land, I will always have a negative environmental impact.
To make it worse, I am the living version of globalisation, having been born in Greece, raised in London, and worked in America. I am now one of the millions of European citizens who work in London but have family abroad. I will always have a reason to travel because I consider multiple countries home, none of which are a sensible train distance apart.
My hypocrisy hasn’t made it to the evening news (yet) but other people have had the joy of having their lives on display.
The easiest example that comes to mind is Greta Thunberg, who has been critiqued over and over again for various reasons, from her family’s career to the materials that the yacht she sailed to America was made from. Emma Thompson was called a hypocrite earlier this year for participating in the International Rebellion in April by flying from Los Angeles. Closer to home, a friend of mine in Extinction Rebellion has been called a hypocrite by the media because her father works in oil and gas, and because she had a photo on her Instagram account of her on a plane.
Outside of the fact that someone’s family does not fall under an individual’s responsibility and actions, there is a clear disconnect between the media and the reality of the world we live in. One of the only ways to genuinely live a carbon neutral life in the Western world is to disconnect yourself from the current system. Aside from the difficulty of living off grid, it also has ramifications on society as a whole. If all climate activists lived off the grid, nobody would be pushing the government for system change, society would go on as normal, and all of our futures would be severely damaged by the climate crisis. A lose-lose situation.
Instead, here we are. Climate activists, on the streets, fighting for a system change, and embracing our hypocrisy.
In the words of George Monbiot, “Yes, we are hypocrites. Because we are embedded in the systems we contest, and life is complicated, no one has ever achieved moral purity. The choice we face is not between hypocrisy and purity, but between hypocrisy and cynicism. It is better to strive to do good, and often fail, than not to strive at all.”
A group of 100 entertainers issued an open letter today supporting Extinction Rebellion and embracing the hypocrisy of their actions. The letter clearly states, “We live high carbon lives and the industries that we are part of have huge carbon footprints. Like you – and everyone else – we are stuck in this fossil-fuel economy and without systemic change, our lifestyles will keep on causing climate and ecological harm.”
There is a sense of power in taking ownership of the hypocrisy of our lives and lifestyles. We cannot deny it, because ultimately it’s true. Instead, it’s time we embraced it.
That doesn’t mean that individual behaviour doesn’t need to change, because it does. We are facing big changes ahead as a society. As the Committee on Climate Change reported last week, the public will play a big role in meeting the net zero targets.
Our choices will have to be different, and some will feel that we are limiting our freedoms. Flying will become more expensive and reflect the true environmental cost. That will mean those 50 pound flights to Ibiza won’t be available any more. Meat consumption will have to decrease drastically too. We won’t all be vegan, but meat will no longer be a daily staple. Public transportation and cycling will become the norm, and car ownership will decrease and largely turn into a ride-sharing, electrified system.
I’ll be honest, this new world scares me. I struggle to imagine a new society because it’s so far from where we are now. But I know we can’t keep going on the same trajectory. Not only for the sake of our children and grandchildren, but even for ourselves. We are already seeing the impacts of climate change and it will only get worse over the next few decades.
I can’t speak for everyone but I certainly acknowledge the hypocrisy of my life. I know that I need to continue to shift towards a lower impact way of living. But that doesn’t mean that I will stop being a climate activist. A new way of living will not emerge overnight by individuals changing from plastic to paper straws, or carrying a reusable water bottle. Societal change is driven by government and business action, action that changes the core of the systems we live in.
Name-calling may be dominant in the press but it is a distraction mechanism that takes away from a critical message: we need system change to address climate change.
Written by Eleni Polychroniadou