Living Earth

Confessions of a Hypocrite: Utopia in the Age of Ecocide

I confess! I love eating Magnum ice creams!!

But surely as a good, responsible eco-citizen, I must be aware that these relatively cheap, beautifully packaged nuggets of deliciousness are inescapably products of the industrial system that is destroying all that I hold dear?

That Magnums are produced by Unilever, not only the world’s biggest ice cream manufacturer but the world’s third largest multinational consumer goods company, associated with deforestation for palm oil, exploitation of workers, the promotion of unsustainable agriculture, factory farming, the use of tax havens, lobbying against GM labelling and so on…

I don’t mean to imply that they’re the worst offenders. It’s just that I happen to particularly enjoy their product (despite being aware that there’s no actual cream in it). For me, it’s what Unilever’s marketing team would doubtless term a ‘wicked indulgence.’

So I should stop eating them, right? I should overcome my baser urges and live a lifestyle that accords with my values and beliefs?

Well, there is certainly an argument for that, and I know many friends who struggle and expend huge energy and willpower on resisting their deep desire for Magnums, or bacon, or jet flights or whatever…. And even feel resentment at those who don’t do the same. Occasionally, of course, they give in and then feel huge guilt, and maybe increased resentment, at those who seem to consume without even feeling this inner conflict.

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Magnum ice creams. photography elisa taviti

With this approach, it is little wonder that we environmentalists are often characterised as tedious killjoys who wouldn’t know how to enjoy ourselves in a vegan chocolate factory. Perhaps it is even fair. After all, there is nothing inspiring about the struggles of a divided and conflicted self. And there is nothing less inspiring than ‘shoulds.’ With the possible exception of ‘should nots’…

But what is the alternative, if we are mindful of the consequences of our actions? How can we live lives of full joy, without sacrifice, guilt or wilful ignorance? For me, what works is letting the two sides of my self talk to each other. The part that desires the Magnum and the part that does not desire the consequences. Rather than choosing between them, I let them talk it out. Surprisingly, perhaps, they seem to come to an agreement quickly enough.

So most of the time, I choose not to eat Magnums for the simple reason that I could not do so with my whole heart. Part of me would indeed feel sad for the consequences I see to my actions, and while I might be able to shut down that part of myself—to quiet the voice of that awareness in me—in doing so I lose much of the joy of the experience. And if only part of me could enjoy that meal, I would be bringing about those negative consequences without even fully appreciating the pleasures. To play a part in the death of the world for the sake of filling an empty, joyless hole is surely the saddest of fates.

But, just occasionally, I do eat them, and I do so wholeheartedly, taking full delight and hedonistic pleasure in the sensory extravaganza. Not because I have successfully quelled or overcome my morals, but because I have integrated them.

Maybe on that day I am tired or heartbroken from a defeat. Perhaps all parts of me know that the simple pleasures of the indulgence will help revive my spirits and reinvigorate my soul and my work for a more beautiful world. Nothing wrong in that. But before making the purchase, I will ask myself a simple, honest question: Would those exploited workers, those ruined ecosystems, begrudge me this pleasure?

With over 10,000 Magnums sold every hour in Britain, one may not make much difference, and perhaps the boost it gives me counts for more than the damage done. On the whole, it is thoughtless habitual purchases that make up the bulk of the problem, not mindful one-offs. Most of the time, I prefer to find sustenance in other things but once in a while I find that my best understanding of those victims hears them saying “go on, just one!”

And then I enjoy the pleasure deeply and thoroughly and without a hint of guilt, while using it to remind myself of my commitment to working for change. As the Native Americans have it, in eating something, you take on a responsibility for the wellbeing of the people and systems involved in producing it.

And, in truth, over the long term, I find that I desire such indulgences less and less often. Without any conflict, moralising, denial or shoulds.

Yet what if someone tells me that Magnums are more damaging than I realised, that my occasional pleasures are contributing to still greater evils than those I listed above?

Happily, I find that having banished shame, such new information becomes entirely welcome—it can only help me shape a life that is more in tune with my deepest desires. Hopefully, one day I will find similar pleasure in refreshments that support the world I wish to inhabit.

But hold on. I wholeheartedly enjoy the fruits of the system while working to change it? I eat Magnums, yet if I could eliminate the system that produces them I would do so in a heartbeat? Doesn’t this make me a shocking hypocrite?

Well, when faced with accusations of hypocrisy, I turn to my dear late mentor David Fleming’s just-published masterpiece Lean Logic:

If an argument is a good one, dissonant deeds do nothing to contradict it. In fact, the hypocrite may have something to be said for him… There is no reason why he should not argue for standards better than he manages to achieve in his own life. Indeed, it would be worrying if his ideals were not better than the way he lives.”1

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Shaun reads from Lean Logic at the book launch event in London, September 21, 2016

Most of us were born into an ecocidal culture. And when advocating that the culture we came from and depend upon changes its ways, accusations of hypocrisy often follow. Yet if our response to this is to withdraw from the discussion until we have “set our own house in order” and developed a perfect lifestyle, we will disappear from the conversation altogether, taking the ideals we believe in along with us.

In truth, accusations of hypocrisy themselves tend to be rather hypocritical—if no hypocrites were permitted to hold opinions, there would likely be no opinions at all. And besides, you can’t win anyway. Even if you did somehow manage to align your life perfectly with your ideals—which would more likely involve curbing your more ambitious ideals than achieving your every dream—you still would not find yourself beyond criticism.

I remember Jeremy Leggett’s early insider’s critique of the oil industry being dismissed as insignificant and ill-informed. Then he put his money where his mouth was and started a renewable energy company—well before it was fashionable—which has proved a great success. Did the criticism stop? No, now the refrain is, “Well, you would say that, you own a renewable energy company.”

Or as Russell Brand pithily put it: “When I was poor and I complained about inequality people said I was bitter. Now I’m rich and I complain about inequality they say I’m a hypocrite. I’m beginning to think they just don’t want inequality on the agenda.”

And of course, if you actually achieved a life of harmony and peace, you’d disqualify yourself. They would tell you that you’re ‘a special person’ (like Gandhi perhaps, or Mandela, or Enric Duran) and that it’s unrealistic to ask the rest of us to emulate such holy behaviour.

No, accusations of hypocrisy should be seen for what they generally are: irrelevant. While a friend or your own conscience might helpfully challenge you to perceive ways in which your lifestyle could better match your aims, an adversary just wants to distract attention from the truth you speak. Don’t take such accusations to heart, and don’t let them distract you from the work of your heart. Failure to live up to a truth doesn’t make it any less true, less worth striving for, or less worth defending.

Once we hear all the voices inside us—and set aside unfriendly ones accusing us of hypocrisy—we can start to live a full expression of who we are; whoever we are, and whatever others think of it. This is so deeply nourishing and refreshing, for when I fight my desires—fight myself—they fight back, constantly draining my willpower. But when I acknowledge and hear them, they return the favour by bringing me energy and sustenance.

The energy those old conflicts were sucking from our souls is released to the part of us that is always yearning to live and explore, always striving to create the next most beautiful version of what we can be, always seeking to uncover deeper truths and unleash new energies and potentials.

These are the endless challenges and rewards of a life fully lived, and I find that in following where they lead, unexpected connections are often revealed….

Over recent years, that striving has been calling me to face my grief, and especially the deep grief that many share—or suppress—at the death in our world. At the humans killed unnecessarily, and the non-humans too. At the deaths now numbered not in hundreds, thousands, or even millions, but in entire species, as even birth is denied to many beautiful forms of life. At the ‘endlings’—the last individuals of their species standing as the final hopeless bulwarks against extinction.

Death seems out of control. But as I worked on David Fleming’s lifework in the aftermath of his own death, I discovered that he speaks to this too:

A natural system lies in tension between life and death: death is as important to it as life.
A lot of death is a sign of a healthy large population.
Too much death is a sign that it is in danger; it is not coping; its terms of coexistence with its habitat are breaking down.
Too little death is a sign of the population exploding to levels which will destroy it and the ecology that supports it.
No death means that the system is already dead.
Expressing faith in the sanctity of human life is a licence—in a series of little, well-intentioned, self-evident steps—to kill the ecology that supports it.
The large-scale system, relying on its size and technology, and making an enemy of death which should be its friend, joins a battle which it cannot win.”
2

Death, then, is not our adversary. Death has its rightful place, as the partner of life, and it always will.

No, our true enemy is far more pernicious, lurking in the shadows, shrinking from the light.

It is not death but undeath that we must face down—the true realm of zombies, of vampires. That living death that hollows all joy, pleasure and meaning from our souls even as our bodies continue to feast on all around us. The cold, relentless, insatiable hunger working to consume all that we hold dear, and taking no pleasure in that work.

This is the enemy of nature and of life. The enemy of art and of love.

And this is the very undeath that our native culture seems to specialise in, as it urges us perpetually towards joyless, guilt-riddled consumption. As it values the number of breaths in our life far more than the amount of life in our breaths. As it places inside its children values that can turn the desire to heal our world into a burden of guilt and self-denial so heavy that the decision to buy an ice cream becomes exhausting. We carry the wetiko culture within us.3

Yes, this contagion is the enemy. And the antidote is not weary admonitions nor endless reams of data on the destruction it is wreaking.

Perhaps it is too late to head off the worst of the consequences. Perhaps not. But this I am sure of: the antidote is joy. A life wholehearted.

The gifts of the tingling intensity of full life—the simple joys of a path untainted by despair, corruption or surrender. Delighting unapologetically in the exquisite tastes of food, the truth and beauty ringing in music or a beautiful day and, for me, always the dancing—my wild, beloved dancing.

So let the different voices in your heart converse and converge. Then eat the Magnum, or don’t. Fight for what you believe in, or accept things as they are. But create a life that you choose wholeheartedly. This is utopia today, and perhaps the only utopia there has ever been.

Endnotes

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1 Fleming, D. (2016). Lean Logic: A dictionary for the future and how to survive it (p.203). White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

2 Fleming, D. (2016). Lean Logic: A dictionary for the future and how to survive it (p.88). White River Junction, VT. Chelsea Green Publishing.

3 Ladha, A., & Kirk, M. (2016). Seeing wetiko: On capitalism, mind viruses, and antidotes for a world in transition. Kosmos Journal, Spring/Summer, 22-27.

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