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Environmental Hypocrites

There are some environmental hypocrites. Repent, hypocrite! Environmental salvation awaits!

Eco-Logical cartoon graphic of cube-shaped globe

Environmental Hypocrites on the Left

First we had "limousine liberals"—defined as people who claimed to be champions of the poor but who themselves led lifestyles of wealth and luxury and were generally disengaged from the activities and consequences of their proposed solutions. Then we had "Lexus liberals"—members of the upper-middle class who espoused left-leaning opinions about how society should solve its problems while they themselves cloistered in suburban McMansions. Both phrases were developed by right-wing politicos to serve as clever verbal shorthand to describe positions they thought were hypocritical.

More recently emerged is the concept of "environmental hypocrites." The phrases "limousine liberals" and "Lexus liberals" already implied "environmental hypocrites"—the assertion being that many environmentalists preach clean energy, simple living, and use of mass transportation while engaging in none of those things. However, "environmental hypocrite" is a narrower charge that excludes non-environmental social issues such as low-income housing, worker rights, and gun control.

In Part 1 of this three-part series, we take a look at environmental hypocrites on the left of the political spectrum. In Part 2, in the spirit of being fair and balanced, we check out environmental hypocrisy on the right—foxes, chicken hawks, or otherwise.

Environmental Hypocrites on the Left?

picture of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. with falcon The subject of environmental hypocrisy made an appearance on Fox's Hannity and Colmes show a few years back. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., one of the country's most prominent environmentalists, came on the show and spoke in support of high mileage vehicles but then was forced to admit that he himself sometimes travels on a personal jet—the single most wasteful mode of transport on the planet.

We can also find fault with Kennedy and others in his family for the fact that they generally support wind power and other sustainable energy technologies but oppose Cape Wind, an off-shore wind-turbine project that would bring clean, renewable energy to a coastal area where they happen to have residential property. Their argument that this is a pristine marine area that should be left visually unsullied by wind turbines is largely hypocritical nonsense.


The case of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is interesting. He is undeniably one of the most effective environmental advocates on the scene today, and his contribution to environmental progress is undeniable. But he also invites criticism for things like his NIMBYistic opposition to the Cape Wind project. RFK Jr. is a classic case study in how great men can be full of complexity and sometimes contradiction. They are never perfect.

Further reading:
-- Legal Eagle: Bobby Kennedy, Jr. Fights for the Environment—and For His Kids' Future (E Magazine, 2003)
-- American Jeremiad: A harrowing ride up the proverbial creek and into the beating, bleeding heart of RFK Jr. (New York Magazine, 2007)

More recently, Al Gore has come under attack for encouraging the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (lest we suffer the perils of picture of Al Gore in front of large screen display of earth from space global warming), while his family's home is reported to suck down 20 times more electricity than the average American home. A Gore spokesperson points out that Mr. Gore buys green power and carbon offsets, so in theory he is not adding to the greenhouse-gas problem he warns us of. But the reported total level of his home's energy use is very high in absolute terms. Global warming is a problem that will largely have to be solved through energy conservation, and Mr. Gore is not setting a good example in that regard.

Do these backstories make Kennedy and Gore environmental hypocrites? Yeah, to some extent.

Gore and Kennedy are both doing good work on behalf of the environment—they rank in the Top 10 of the world's most effective environmental advocates. And they both no doubt make plenty of eco-friendly lifestyle choices. But to be a high-profile environmentalist and not fully walk the talk—even if only in terms of the perception they create—is hugely problematic. The public does not like hypocrites, environmental or otherwise, and giving opponents of environmental progress the opportunity to throw hypocritical mud on your righteous arguments reduces the power of your message and distracts people from the real issues. For some in the audience, these slight negatives weigh heavily against the overwhelmingly positive work Kennedy and Gore do.

picture of Ed Begley, Jr. Is it possible to be a high-profile environmentalist and live a truly environmentally friendly life? Sure. Hollywood actor Ed Begley, Jr., does it. He encourages everyone to reduce energy use, to install sustainable energy technologies like solar panels, to recycle, and to use alternate transportation. He himself lives in a modest two-bedroom house—unheard of among Hollywood stars—and he does all of the eco-friendly things he promotes to others. His house is covered in solar panels, he has a bicycle-powered toaster, and a solar backpack recharges his cell phone. He uses only compact fluorescent bulbs. He recycles relentlessly. He has an electric vehicle and a Prius but still prefers to walk, ride his bike, or take public transportation to his destinations—all modes of travel that are even more eco-friendly than his already green vehicles.

Ed Begley's home is not particularly beautiful as defined by the standards of the typical Hollywood star, and his lifestyle is not notably elegant. But his home is very functional and his way of living is very efficient. He shuns ego-driven luxury and personal convenience, and he does more than most people—big stars or hoi polloi—to strive for a clean environment and a sustainable future. He's as far from being an environmental hypocrite as one can get.

Environmental Hypocrites ... Over the Rooftops and Houses

Al Gore is not the only environmentalist with a cushy home. CEOs of environmental groups sometimes "live big" too. Nature Conservancy President Steven J. McCormick caught some flack a few years back for his mini-mansion (as well as his $420,000 compensation package).

Mansions are basically extra-large houses, and they're almost always resource hogs:

  • They are usually sited on large amounts of land (which could otherwise have been kept as natural habitat).
  • They require huge amounts of natural resources for construction.
  • They use large amounts of energy on a day-to-day basis.

To avoid the environmental hypocrite label, any mansion-dwelling eco-bigwigs out there are well advised to downsize and get with their own program.

Environmental activists also sometimes come under fire for jetting around the world to campaign for environmental issues or attend conferences. It's true that even flying coach on a modern, efficient passenger plane produces a lot of greenhouse gases per passenger mile. So, is it environmentally hypocritical to warn an audience of global warming dangers after having just flown 5,000 miles?

The answer in a moment. First we must point out two things.

  • Environmentalists are well aware of this sort of contradiction and mostly strive to minimize their impact as they go about their activities.
  • This sort of criticism usually comes from eco-refusniks and is used as a tool to distract the public from the real issues. Contrary to the assertions of those who deride environmental regulations and environmentalists, greenies do not want to deprive everyone of the benefits of modern living and send them back to living in caves. To suggest that we either must continue overtaxing the planet or revert back to medieval ways is a false choice. There are many, many ways society can go forward into a sustainable future without giving up the important comforts of modern living. Those who suggest otherwise are environmental hypocrites themselves.

With this in mind, we declare that eco-folks who engage in a reasonable amount of travel to accomplish good works are not being environmental hypocrites. We'd be somewhat more inclined to call an eco-warrior an environmental hypocrite for flying off to a tropical vacation, but taking a jumbo jet to a conference of people who are trying to save the über-capitalist world from itself is not a sin and not hypocritical.

That said, we'd like to see more virtual conferences being held!

NGOs — Environmental Hypocrites on US Population Levels

We find most mainstream environmental groups to be fairly on-target with their overall goals and methods, but we think some of them act hypocritically occasionally. For instance, most major US environmental groups are silent on the issue of global population—and, more specifically, silent on the issue of US population.

Remember that one's individual environmental footprint is roughly based on the amount of energy and resources used and the amount of waste produced. The total US environmental footprint is based on the average individual environmental footprint of a US resident times the number of people in the country. Since the average individual environmental footprint in the US is very big compared to the global average, adding more people in the US is clearly an environmental negative.

To talk about the problem of US population growth only in terms of sprawl is dishonest. But the US population level—and ways to check its growth—is a touchy issue, and green groups would "rather not go there."

In the few areas like this where some eco-groups are environmental hypocrites, we hope they will abandon political expediency and stop avoiding the discussion. Being silent on an import but politically troublesome issue is, perhaps, less bad than a lie (like right-wing assertions that falling Western reproduction rates are a problem), but it's still not as good as speaking the truth and confronting the problem. (To check out one hypocrisy-free environmental group that's shouting loud and clear about the relationship between population levels and ecosystem degradation, visit Population Connection.)



Population Growth Solutions for the US


American Politics, Political Lies, the Environment, and Sprawl


World Population Growth in Context — and Solutions to Overpopulation

Are “We the People” Environmental Hypocrites?

What about average people who claim to be environmentalists? Are most of them environmental hypocrites? Let's look at a hypothetical suburbanite—we'll call her Fawn.

Fawn recycles religiously, buys organic food when she can, has compact fluorescent light bulbs in most of her fixtures, and tries to keep environmental issues in mind when voting. Thus, Fawn likes to think of herself as an environmentalist. Unfortunately, all is not green in the lives of Fawn and her husband, Bob. Let's take a look.

ITEM: Fawn and Bob live in a large, 4,000-sqft, standard-equipment suburban home.
PROBLEM: It's much more of an energy hog than an average-size US home (which itself already uses more energy than the average home in other industrialized countries).

ITEM: Fawn and Bob have four kids.
PROBLEM: That's two more than the "replacement value" of two children per couple required for society to keep replenishing itself. Thus, they are contributing to overpopulation, one of the biggest factors in environmental problems.

ITEM: Their vehicles are a mid-size sedan and a minivan.
PROBLEM: Neither vehicle gets even average fuel economy.

ITEM: Because they're very busy, they use a standard lawn service that keeps their lawn looking like nice and green.
PROBLEM: Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Bob and Fawn, the company does this by regularly applying chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These chemicals can harm their children and dog, and some of the toxins will eventually run off into the nearest stream, harming aquatic life and degrading water supplies for people downstream in the watershed.

Fawn and Bob have made a good start on being true environmentalists with their light bulbs and organic food and recycling, but they're failing at some big things—things that have large environmental impact. Fawn and Bob are not really environmental hypocrites, but rather they are "environmentally inadequate." If she were preaching that everyone should trade in their minivans on greener choices but did not do so herself, then she would be an environmental hypocrite.


Want to see what environmentally friendly vehicle options are available to Fawn and Bob—and you? Check out Yahoo! Autos' Top 100 Cars by Green Rating.

To some extent, we can excuse Fawn—and all of the people who try to be eco-minded but find it difficult to be as good as they'd like to be. The global economic system was designed by and for the plutocrats of the world. Input from environmental and sustainability advocates has been ignored to the extent possible, and so we have a system that is not conducive to being an eco-friendly citizen-consumer. As Kermit the Frog famously said: "It isn't easy being green."

Here are some examples of what we mean:

  • Vehicle manufacturers and oil companies have fought hard against higher fuel economy that would save consumers money but might cost the companies money on their bottom line. Many more high-mileage choices in all model sizes would be available if auto manufacturers spent their energies designing and producing such vehicles instead of lobbying against them.
  • A few decades ago, vehicle manufacturers, oil companies, and tire companies conspired to ensure the demise of urban trolley systems so people would have limited in-city transportation choices and be more likely to depend on cars. These companies and others have also successfully lobbied congress to ensure that most federal transportation dollars go to highway projects, not mass transportation systems—again promoting personal vehicles at the expense of more sustainable alternatives.
  • Home builders rarely offer options that would reduce energy use and save consumers money in the long run because such options often increase the up-front cost of a new home and require builders to be more knowledgeable about "non-standard" technologies and that their house plans and building techniques be more flexible.
  • Organic food has been a niche product for the last few decades—less available and affordable than its mainstream non-eco counterpart. That is largely because until very recently, organic has received very little federal support for research and marketing, while many, many billions of federal dollars have been funneled into industrial agriculture. Even now, organic receives relatively little support from federal and state farm programs.

So, we admit that one really has to fight the system to go green, and failure to live up to one's own eco-standards is understandable. But a high level of greenness is possible... as we shall show next.

Environmental Hypocrites at Grinning Planet? We Think Not...

Since we at Grinning Planet spend a lot of time opining about how things should be in the world, we thought we should give you a little peek behind the curtain so that you can feel assured that we are not environmental hypocrites.

Here are some of the attributes of the EnergyStar-certified house that serves as both Grinning Planet Operations Center and personal home:

  • moderately sized;
  • designed for passive solar heating (free energy from the sun);
  • highly insulated walls, ceilings, and crawlspace;
  • high efficiency windows;
  • light-colored metal roof to reflect solar loading in the summer;
  • double-celled insulating window shades;
  • ground-connected heat pump for cooling and supplemental heating;
  • whole-house fan;
  • solar hot water, with insulating blanket on water tank;
  • house designed so washing machine, sinks, and tubs are all near the centrally located water heater (to minimize heat loss in pipes);
  • EnergyStar appliances, including a horizontal-axis washing machine (which uses much less energy and water);
  • 4.2 kilowatts of solar panels, grid intertied;
  • high-capacity rainwater harvesting system for gardening use.

Add to that the following practices in the GP household:

  • eat mainly organic food, support local food and farms, and try to eat only free-range animal products;
  • use 100% natural and organic cleaning products and personal-care products;
  • recycle to the extent possible in our locale.

Based on all that, we hope we can say that we at Grinning Planet are bona fide environmentalists with only minimal traces of hypocrisy—mostly the occasional bottle of organic wine shipped from California!

We're not trying to brag. No doubt there are areas where we could have done better or "lived with less" during design and construction, as well as areas where we can and will improve further in the future. We also understand that not everyone has circumstances that allow this level of eco-friendliness. But our point is that all environmentalists aren't just a bunch of elite fuzzy-headed thinkers who would have you do something that they do not do themselves. There are many, many environmentalists doing the same sorts of things we do—and more. It is not that hard to be an eco-warrior and not be an environmental hypocrite.


So, not all is perfect in the worlds of those of us who strive for a cleaner environment. We'll all keep trying to improve. But wait'll you get a load of the environmental hypocrisy coming from those in the right wing of the political spin-o-sphere!

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Publish date: 13-MAR-2007

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  1. Environmental Hypocrites
      (on the Left)

  2. Environmental Hypocrisy
      (on the Right)

  3. Corporate Greenwashing
      (Including Free-Market Hypocrisy)

This is Part 1 of a three-part series. Article 3 will be published in a future issue of Grinning Planet. Why not  sign up  for the free GP email service so you don't miss it.



Environmental Extremism
Let's Be Careful How We Define It


Environmentalists in Fiction
The New Bad Guys?


Environmental Doublespeak
Greenwashed Language to Watch Out For


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— Job 27:8

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