Boycotts, action, and penance

Last week, walking across campus to the library, I was interrupted (I don’t want to say “accosted”) by a woman in her early twenties wearing a Greenpeace t-shirt.

“Are you on your way to teach, or do you have a minute to help save the environment?”

“No,” I said, smiling, “I’m not on my way to teach.”1

So I let her tell me about Greenpeace, and about an initiative to protect rainforests by convincing KFC’s parent company to quit buying from a company called Asia Pulp and Paper, which is alleged to log protected rainforests illegally. Other fast-food chains have quit buying from them, and Greenpeace is pressuring KFC to stop too.

I have this mental image of Greenpeace activists rowing up to an oil tanker in, I don’t know, a Viking longship or something, and attacking it with pea shooters. Quixotic, misguided, but romantic. There was no romance in this little chat on the sidewalk, no adventure, no grand visions, just procedural details of corporate malfeasance. It felt very… oh, bourgeois. Very proper, very polite, very accepting of social and cultural norms, very work-within-the-system.

On the spot I couldn’t articulate why, precisely, I couldn’t bring myself to care. Or maybe I could have, but it was too complicated a conversation for an early-autumn dusk on a sidewalk under the oak trees. I mean, sure, all things being equal, if we’re going to blow through forests to create mountains of single-use cups and napkins so we can eat mindlessly while we race from here to there in our cars that are irrevocably altering the planet’s climate and then bulldoze rural landscapes so we can bury those cups and napkins in landfills, if we’re going to do all that anyway, then sure, we ought to do it… more… um… sustainably? Well, maybe you see my point already.

recreation of a Viking longship

Here’s the thing about boycotts. A boycott makes sense as a way of bringing someone or something back into line, back to an established norm of behavior. It’s like Amish shunning for the global economy: when someone violates community norms, we turn our backs on them and exclude them from the community until they are forced to return to the community and repent. It’s peaceful, and when its aims are limited and specific, it can be effective. A boycott both reins in outliers and ratifies the community’s norms.

But what if the norms themselves are dangerously wrong? Why, then, am I trying to bring anybody back to them? Agreed, again, that there might be a marginal practical benefit to their coming back to our disastrously screwed-up norms — is it really worth my time and money? Mightn’t there be better ways to invest my effort?

The problem, in this case, is not that one company is buying paper made from illegally logged trees but that we are so used to buying single-use, disposable goods, whether for convenience or sanitation or some invented necessity, that we cannot even imagine doing without them. We pat ourselves on the back for recycling, but little fast-food trash, I would imagine, is or can be recycled.2 Not only do we blast through paper when we eat out, but we have adopted fast-food practices into our own homes: paper napkins at the table, paper towels for the kitchen, bottled water in the home fridge, single-serving packets of sugar on the pantry shelf, and now single-use hand towels in the home bathroom.3 The global paper industry consumes millions of acres of trees each year, as many as 6 billion trees a year depending on whose reckoning you believe — a number that is increasing annually and which includes 27,000 trees a day for toilet paper. We cannot possibly go through that many trees, that quickly, sustainably. Even if we could replace them all with pines genetically engineered to grow fast enough to meet our needs — sorry, our “needs” — the conversion of great swaths of forest habitat into monoculture is neither desirable nor sustainable4 — and where would we put all the trash? On the moon?

The problem, more specifically, is that on the very same trip to campus I started this essay by recalling, I was tired, I had some time to kill before a meeting, and so I bought a cup of coffee. I could have drunk it from a mug had I wanted to sit in the restaurant, but it was a beautiful evening and I’d been inside all day, so I got it to go. And I sat on a bench, looking at an oak tree, contemplating the divine geometry of its branches, considering, indeed, the very issue of this essay, while drinking my coffee out of a paper cup.

Aw, crap.

The label on the cup assured me that it, and my purchase, were somehow sustainable. I couldn’t follow the logic, but the cup was printed in green ink, so it must have been true, right? To which I say: Whatever. I didn’t need this cup; I didn’t even particularly need the coffee that came in it. There is no rational means by which I could justify its creation, existence, use, and disposal. I had not earned for it its keep.

That is the problem. If the habit of casual consumption is so automatic, so unthinking that even while we are thinking about it we don’t think about it — that I don’t think about it, and I think about this stuff a lot — is which trees KFC cuts down for its paper napkins really going to make that much of a difference? Particularly if China, India, Brazil, and the rest of the world follow our appalling example? In the end, we’re going to get that rainforest one way or another.

So I come back to this question: When is a boycott appropriate, and when it is not appropriate? When is a behavioral norm so out of whack that it shouldn’t be enforced, even when the immediate alternative is worse, because ratifying that norm would do more damage? How do we know where to draw the line?

I don’t have a clear answer. I don’t think there is one. I believe, though, that if a boycott inspires self-righteousness in the boycotters, it is likely to do at least as much harm as good — even if the behavioral norm being enforced is perfectly reasonable, far more so if it is not. I would be awfully wary of demanding that someone else fix a problem for whose solution I can’t be bothered to lift a finger. And yet merely to sit on the sidelines and throw up our hands would be cynical. So that isn’t a solution, either.

What I would suggest, therefore, is this: Whenever you sign a boycott or a petition, any time you email a corporation or a Congressperson to ask that they change their own behavior or force a change in someone else’s, first think of five things that you could have done, relative to the same issue or a closely related one, in the past month, but did not do. Then think of one thing that you could do, and do it. The five things ensure that you don’t get to feel self-righteous about your action; the one ensures that you take personal responsibility for the issue.

The one thing should, if at all possible, not involve spending money. It should require some sort of personal effort or sacrifice. But it need not be anything major; this isn’t about grand gestures. It could be as simple as resetting the thermostat (or doing without HVAC entirely for a day) before you sign that petition about fracking, or remembering to take your own container to the co-op to fill from the peanut butter grinder before you send that email about drilling in the Arctic. Indeed, it might be better if it’s a very small thing but one that can become a habit, because then every time you do it you’ll be reminded of how paltry a thing it is, and of how much more you ought to be doing.

At a minimum, when you sign your name or click “submit,” you can enjoy the momentary satisfaction of having a square inch or two of moral high ground.

In fact, the next time you choose not to sign a boycott or a petition, do those things anyway.

This little program only just occurred to me today, as I was trying to figure out how to finish this essay without sounding self-righteous myself.5 So I don’t know how well it works. Maybe it’s a lousy idea. But it seems worth a try.

I didn’t join Greenpeace, to the activist’s disappointment. And I can’t actually boycott KFC anyway, because I haven’t eaten there in over a decade. But I’ve got some old mugs lying around that don’t fit in my kitchen cabinet, and I’ve stashed one in the glove box of my car so I have a backup plan for coffee. It is a very, very small step. But it is an immediate step, a practical step, I might even say a penitential step — one that requires some active and continual effort if not actually sacrifice, the absence of which will nag me when I fail to do it, and which will prod me to think about what else I ought (or ought not) to be doing — instead of buying an indulgence for my sins with a check to a nonprofit or signing a petition and calling it atonement.

And if you want me to join your nonprofit, seriously, consider the Viking longship. Style often wins me over when reason and passion can’t.

(Thanks to William Murphy for his Creative Commons licensed photo.)

  1. Full graying beard, ponytail, corduroy jacket. How could I not be a professor?
  2. I hate saying “I would imagine.” I couldn’t find any numbers, and I doubt there are any; I’m not sure how one would study this. Here’s a qualitative indication, though, from The Telegraph of Britain.
  3. See Sara Nardo’s recent essay on Front Porch Republic about how cleaning house has become a countercultural act.
  4. A good read on the subject of North American paper forests, and the cultures (human and natural) they replaced, is Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.
  5. Even though the point was that I, and not KFC, am the real problem — it is possible to be grandiose in one’s humility, when in fact mine is fairly small potatoes. It’s possible I’m being self-righteous in my humility about my humility, but then we’re really down a rabbit hole. For the sake of argument let’s just assume the best of each other and move on.