Green: Are Some Shades More Selfish Than Others?

8 years ago

I've been called "dark green" by some of the nicest people. I think what they mean is that because I refuse to buy new plastic and insist that manufacturers should disclose the ingredients in their products, I am somehow more virtuous than most. But you know what? I don't buy it.

I don't believe there is a spectrum of greenness, but rather that we all have unique priorities. And whereas I might think plastic is the scourge of the earth, others might be more interested in cutting energy consumption or saving water or making sure their kids are consuming healthy foods.

So earlier this month, when the Market Place radio program aired a segment called "Buying green, but not for the planet," I had to take issue with the implication that unless the reasons for our behavior changes are entirely altruistic, we are somehow selfish.

From the show:

"ANDREA GARDNER: First, I have a confession. When I buy environmentally friendly products, it isn't for the planet. What I mean is I buy organic apple juice because I figure it's healthier for my toddler. Energy-saving light bulbs help me save money. And I think non-toxic cleaning products are just safer. I asked around, and many of my friends admitted the same thing."

Why does Ms. Gardner need to confess in the first place? Why does she feel that the health of her family is somehow disconnected from that of the planet? Or that "saving the planet" is some kind of ideal to which she doesn't aspire? I appreciate marketers' recognition that persuading the non-treehugging public to go green might mean touting a product's health or money-saving benefits over its low carbon footprint. But does it matter? Isn't everything connected?

In my view, we are the planet. When we buy organic food for our families to protect their health, we keep toxic chemicals from running off into our waterways and from harming farm workers. When we buy less or reduce our energy consumption to save money, we help lower carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. And it works the other way around, too. My impetus for living a greener life was the urge to protect wild animals from plastic pollution. I didn't realize at the time that giving up plastic to help the planet meant living a much healthier life myself. After all, how much junk and convenience food can you buy without plastic?

Maybe none of our reasons is perfectly selfish or selfless. I decided to poll other green bloggers to learn how they defined "green" and what was their initial motivation to start living more sustainably. Here is what a few of them said.

Protecting Animals

sea turtle eats plastic

Image by Alejandro Fallabrino By permission from

As I mentioned, my initial reason for making green changes was to stop causing harm to animals. Lisa Frack from Enviroblog had a similar story. Since having a baby, she has become more concerned about human health. But her first movement toward environmentalism was all about the animals:

"But at the real heart of it, I was a HUGE animal lover, and animal lovers also are habitat lovers, by definition. That's what got me initially. The sense that they were powerless under humans' habitat destruction. It had an inherent unfairness/imbalance of power in it that I didn't (still don't) like. Kind of like fishing from a helicopter, right? Just 'off' somehow."

For Deanna Duke from Crunchy Chicken, her first foray into the green movement around 1991 was all about owls.

"I think the green movement was really starting to hit on campus then because of the whole 'spotted owl' controversy going on in Washington and Oregon. So, I think I got into the green movement more from a conservation standpoint and it has since progressed to so much more. I think seeing these kinds of bumper stickers just ground my crackers: 'Save a Logger -- Eat an Owl'."

And Jenn Savedge from The Green Parent also wanted to protect animals.

"I think it was back in the late '80s when we got something from GreenPeace in the mail about saving the dolphins or whales or tigers ... some such creature. I read through it quickly but it really stuck with me, and it bothered me that some of the things I was seeing in my little coal mining PA town (pollution, litter, over-consumption) were affecting other species on the planet besides humans."

Conserving Wild Places


While Diane MacEachern from Big Green Purse is motivated to protect the environment for health reasons, her early awareness of environmental issues stemmed from a love of nature instilled by her parents:

"Being green goes way back for me. I don't remember a time my parents didn't say 'Don't waste.' They also had a great appreciation of nature. One of my first memories is of my dad taking me to a field in southern Ontario to watch the Canada Geese migrate. My mother was a nature lover, too. We spent our summers in Nova Scotia, on Cape Breton Island, where there was no electricity and we lived close to the elements."

Similarly, Micaela Preston from Mindful Momma says that while her first priority these days is for her children, she was first motivated by learning about ecology in school and as a Girl Scout. She told me,

"It was mostly about not littering back then ..."Give a hoot, don't pollute," the crying Indian commercial ... you remember, right? (cause we're about the same age! :) But I took it to heart, even at a young age!"

Raising Healthy Children

children on the beach

Image: Amber Strocel from, by permission, via Flickr.

Anna Hackman from Green Talk says:

"I went green because of my children who have learning issues and allergies. I thought my best impact was in what we use in our homes since we live in them so much of our lives."

And Tiffany Washko from Nature Moms, whose first intro to green living was switching to cloth diapers, is also concerned about her family's health:

"My number #1 priority would be the the safety of my children and trying to reduce their exposure to environmental toxins. Frankly if I hadn't become a mom I don't know that I would have followed the green brick road so you can't knock going green for health reasons ... something Market Place should consider."

Saving Money

energy billBeany from The Middle Way does it for the money as well as the greater good:

"Well for me, I became green for the literal green: money! I am semi-obsessed with retiring early and since I don't have access to family connections, access (or luck to obtain) to high paying jobs or inheritances of any sort, I knew that in order to reach the goal of retiring early from the workplace I would change how I approached my goal. That meant living below my means and living a life that was rich and rewarding without sacrificing any values.


But now I can't deny the importance I feel toward being good steward to planet Earth. I don't feel that my individual actions contribute toward any greater good, but I cannot shop at any big box store because I cannot bear the thought that my purchases are a result of someone somewhere being exploited. I can't bear the thought that my purchases is contributing to environmental degradation, lower quality of life and general shittiness all around. I don't want to deny my human-ness. Living a life that is ethical, sustainable and kind to our planet is something I believe that shouldn't just be a choice but a necessity."

And Katy Wolk-Stanley from the NonConsumer Advocate gets all "mathy" with her Venn diagram demonstrating how green values and frugality intersect.

Stewarding God's Gifts

church window

Image: Neil T via Flickr

Katie Kimball from Kitchen Stewardship feels that taking care of the planet is her responsibility as a Christian.

"I've always been a 'conservative' person, 'green' at heart if you will, and I've always had a strong faith, so I think understanding that God calls us to be good stewards of all our resources just came naturally and was part of my person as I matured and gained more adult responsibilities ... Since God is the giver of all these good gifts, my family's health, the earth, my money and time to spend with my loved ones, taking good care of them all is my responsibility as a faithful person ... To be a good steward is to realize that nothing we have is ours, but it's all on loan from our Creator. We need to only use what we need and try to leave the earth a better place for our children."

Lisa Sharp from Retro Housewife Goes Green feels the same way. A child of a hippie mom, she learned to recycle and buy food from the coop. Now, she feels her faith also plays a big role. "I believe the earth is a gift and we should take good care of it out of respect for God."

So, are some green shades actually more selfish than others?

BlogHer Contributing Editor Siel Ju from Green LA Girl has a pretty selfish reason for going green: human happiness.

"Green living to me means happier living. Often, living with a smaller carbon footprint's depicted as being a hard life of sacrifice -- but for me, choosing not to fight daily traffic, not lug huge bags of trash to the dumpster on a near daily basis, and not pay gigantic water and power bills don't exactly seem like sacrifices."

And blogger Isle Dance thinks all reasons are selfish reasons, and I couldn't have put it more beautifully myself.

"I do tend to consider myself driven by selfish/controlling reasons, when it comes to my desire to see us all living more naturally. Because I know how good it feels and I want others to know they can experience similar goodness, too. And because what another does affects my health (air, food, water). But of course, I truly care about said others and the nature at our toes, too. We are all such amazing, beautiful beings. Creations. Of nature."

Beth Terry: attempting to live plastic-free and blogging the heck out of it at Follow her on Twitter.

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