Greta Thunberg puts most of us to shame. The 16-year-old Swedish climate activist is en route to the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York, on a two-week, comfort-free journey by solar-powered sailboat. She doesn’t fly, because flying is bad for the climate. She helped popularize the Swedish movement of flygskam, or flight shaming, which asks Swedes to travel according to their beliefs.
Greta’s also a vegan. Her parents are vegan, too, after what sounds like a daunting kitchen-table campaign of repetition plus guilt. “I kept showing them articles and graphs ... they always had excuses,” Greta told an interviewer. But “I kept telling them that they were stealing our future and they cannot stand up for human rights while living that lifestyle.”
Greta’s like an emissary from the future calmly stating that now is the time to panic. Who could argue with that? Not me. I recently swore off plastic straws on account of my own 16-year-old’s disapproval, even though his straw-shaming (sugrörskam?) consisted only of a single, sharp “Mom!” and a slow, disappointed head shake as I plucked my absolute-last-plastic-straw-I-swear from a coffee shop counter. If Greta were my kid, I’d be a vegan now, too.
But she’s not my kid. So although I believe that climate change is an urgent threat, I travel and eat without thinking much about my carbon footprint. According to Greta, I’m probably not evil; I just don’t know better: “People keep doing what they do because the vast majority doesn’t have a clue about the actual consequences of our everyday life.” That’s not quite right; we do have a clue. But believing one thing and doing another is how most of us behave.
When my father bought an SUV many years ago, I shook my head slowly in disappointment and nicknamed his new car “OPEC.” He argued he needed four-wheel-drive to traverse his steep driveway in the snow. He lives in Virginia. I pointed out that on the three occasions per year when he might be snowed in, he could call a neighbor or just stay put. Didn’t he care about the environment?
The thing is, he does. He knows gas-guzzlers are bad. He thinks that mileage standards should be higher and that no one should be able to buy a car that gets as few miles to the gallon as the one he bought. He would happily vote for someone who would make it illegal for him to buy an SUV. But until the laws changed, he was sticking with OPEC.
What a hypocrite!
Eventually, though, I let the SUV-skam go. Children and visionaries (and especially child visionaries) abhor hypocrisy, but I was old enough by then to appreciate it. I’d rather my father be a hypocrite than be wrong.
True, his purchase did not match his politics. But would it be better if his politics matched his purchase? If he decided, because he wanted an SUV, that maybe they weren’t so bad after all? Of course not. Better he should have the right values, which one day might change what he chose to drive.
Even if my father never lives up to them, those values shape his politics. And they shape his daughter, too. He has raised someone who wouldn’t dream of buying an SUV. I’ve raised kids who wouldn’t dream of using straws or bottled water. With luck, one day they’ll raise kids who will shame them for ... something. Swing sets? Surfing?
When you look at it this way, hypocrisy in well-meaning people is just the lag time between belief and action. It’s a refusal to accept that how we behave now is as good as we can expect from ourselves, from others and from the future. And it’s a reflection of the fact that most of us need help (regulations, laws, incentives, shame) getting to where we know we should be.
Failure to live according to your stated beliefs is one thing, of course; it’s quite another to insist that others live by rules that you yourself don’t keep. Flying after making everyone else brave the seas. That’s the ugly kind of hypocrite.
Greta Thunberg is neither kind. If anyone lives according to her convictions, she does.
But as much as I admire her consistency, I don’t dismiss climate activists who live in mansions or even fly private jets to climate conferences. Their advocacy will help shape a new generation, which will then turn around and judge their personal behavior as hopelessly retrograde.
Every generation is the hypocritical generation for the one that follows. It may feel like karma, but it’s actually progress. Is it moving fast enough to save the planet? I bet I know what Greta would say.