We are all hypocrites

Lauren Adler

On Dec. 13, I landed in LAX airport. I took my first two steps on U.S. soil, feeling worldly and smug from the past four months of cold showers and composting. That high lasted for a good seven seconds. And then I ran to Starbucks.

I sat there for about two hours during my layover to Seattle, sipping my white chocolate peppermint mocha, breaking off the corner pieces of my blueberry scone and taking small bites with my eyes closed. Bliss. After four months of biodegradable shampoo and mosquitoes up the yin-yang, my scone sprinkled with crunchy sugar and corporate consumerism was not even a guilty pleasure: it was just a pleasure.

Not to say that my time in Costa Rica was for naught, the minute that blessed latté touched my tongue. Mind you, I lived and breathed environmentalism day and night for an entire semester.

My study abroad experience? Forget art and gelato and the ancient chapels of Rome and welcome to the Center for Sustainable Development, where our shower dregs water the garden and our socks flutter from clothing lines like strings of Christmas lights. It was not always pretty and idealistically simple in that “back-to-nature” way that every environmentalist dreams they would thrive in. I smelled. My T-shirts molded, literally, molded in the rain. I washed my plates in a communal water bucket that always hosted floating bits of bean and lettuce. It was disgusting and it was greasy and it was often uncomfortable.

But I had spent so much time sitting on my high horse in some Whitman classroom, analyzing energy use trends and scowling at the ignoramuses who putz around in their Hummers and throw away a plastic bag after only using it one time, that I figured it was finally time I practiced the sustainable lifestyle I so easily preached. It was time I stop driving around to my proverbial soap boxes in my parents’ Ford Escape and started to walk my talk.

And, lo and behold, as my weeks in Costa Rica went by, the ghost of my enormous ecological footprint back in Seattle and Walla Walla began to hover around me every time I dropped a banana peel into the compost bin. Much to my chagrin, those banana peels did not make me feel good about my noble environmental contribution: they only made me painfully aware of exactly how many peels I have not composted in my lifetime. Probably as big as a sand dune. Class act, I am. A first-class hypocrite.

And I was still aware of this as I sat in Starbucks on Dec. 13, a date I had long before red-inked on my calendar as my joyous reunion with clean bathrooms, hot water and coffee shop chains. My latté was heavenly, heavenly bliss. Even after four months of sustainable living. Even after becoming an eyewitness of the shameless exploitation of small sustainable coffee farms by Starbucks and other giants willing to sacrifice social and environmental justice for an extra five cents per cup. Even after my environmental reawakening, after seeing the light and the error of my Starbucks-loving ways. The Christmas music, the broad-backed armchairs, the mahogany: I was a sucker for all of it, all over again.

So it was in this moment that the experience of the past semester finally caught up to me in a whooshing fell swoop, in one single lesson much more valuable than forest gap dynamics or national park policy. Four months in Costa Rica taught me this: We are all hypocrites.
It was that easy. We are all hypocrites. I’m a hypocrite and so are you. We do things which completely violate what we have said two seconds before, and that’s completely normal. We all have beliefs and opinions and passions, and we all contradict them. Accepting this fact is the greatest thing you can do for your convictions, because it gives you permission to be human. It lets you lean back and relax and fully take your beliefs as your own, even though you aren’t a flawless projection of them.

And so I did not, as I had predicted, return to the United States frantic and stressed about how wasteful we are with natural resources, how inefficient our light bulbs, computers and toilets are, how long the marathon will be to slow the encroaching effects of fossil fuel depletion and deforestation.

I was and am eerily calm about how unsustainable I can be, simply because I now understand that being a hypocrite is only human. Sometimes I don’t unplug my electrics from their outlets because it is tedious. Sometimes I won’t carpool with my mom because it is inconvenient. And sometimes I want a white chocolate peppermint mocha in a paper cup. But this doesn’t mean I don’t fully stand for environmentalism and at least strive to live sustainably.

Once I admitted this to myself, my job as an environmental warrior seemed so simple and easy. I cannot assume the responsibility of everyone around me. I will not try to counterbalance every paper cup that is tossed away by wearing a ceramic mug as a necklace and carrying it wherever I go, just in case I want to buy some tea.

I used to stress about the cognitive dissonance between what I said and what I did: how could I call myself an environmentalist when I just threw away a Naked Juice bottle because I couldn’t find the nearest recycling bin? I can. And I do. I am only 20 years old, and my political weight is a whopping zero, and there isn’t a whole lot I can single-handedly do in the global name of environmentalism. But I am aware of my actions and their consequences. I can try. And I will keep trying, doing all that I can within the parameters of my power.

When a student in my Environmental Studies 120 class last spring asked an environmental warrior hero of mine, Winona LaDuke (during her lecture on renewable energy), exactly how she felt about the oil wasted by the plane she took to fly to Walla Walla, she paused merely for a second before responding, “You can spend a lot of time pounding yourself for things as they are, you know. I just try to do the best I can.”