I’ve spewed a lot of words in the last few months as I’ve run around the country talking about (and reading from) my new books. When you read something out loud, or just say it out loud, you can get a fairly quick sense of the audience’s reaction. I think it’s fair to say that the biggest reaction I’ve gotten, overall, comes when I read the words spoken by Dan Driscoll, the Boston environmental planner who has spent the last twenty years fighting to green the banks of the Charles River.
I originally wrote about Dan for OnEarth in the article "Riding the Wild Charles," which I expanded into the book My Green Manifesto. The scene below is from our first day of paddling together:
“We nature lovers are hypocrites of course," Dan says. “We are all hypocrites. None of us are consistent. The problem is that we let that fact stop us. We worry that if we fight for nature, people will say ‘But you drive a car’ or ‘You fly a lot’ or ‘You’re a consumer, too.’ And that stops us in our tracks. It’s almost as if admitting that we are hypocrites gets people off the hook.”
I pull my paddle out of the water and turn back to listen.
“What we need are more hypocrites,” he says. “We need hypocrites who aren’t afraid of admitting it but will still fight for the environment. We don’t need some sort of pure movement run by pure people. We need hypocrites!”
I think of Ed Abbey fighting for the West while throwing empty beer cans out the window of his truck. I think of my own environmental Achilles heel, a dainty preference for hot baths over showers. And then I think of everyone I know and know of and can’t come with anyone who has an entirely clean eco slate. Which seems to mean that, logically, Dan is right: if only non-hypocrites are going to fight for the environment then it will be an army of none.
So there it is: We need hypocrites! Fighting hypocrites!
Why do people respond to that line? I think because it offers up the possibility of a less pure environmentalism, a sloppier environmentalism. An environmentalism that doesn’t turn its nose away from us and walk away. Rather it offers an embracive environmentalism that opens its arms and welcomes us, whatever our faults and flaws.
And that, I’ve come to believe, is what we need. An army of people who care despite their imperfections. An army of flawed and sloppy hypocrites.
(Not long ago I talked about this idea on the public radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge.)
Illustration: Gary Hovland