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Judging Thy Neighbor Isn't Helping the Environment, You Jerk

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Hey, environmental advocates, we need to talk.

It's your attitude. It just needs a little... readjusting.

Take when Beyoncé and Jay Z went vegan for 22 days, for example. Everyone in the vegan community was so excited and laudatory. That is, until Beyoncé went to a vegan restaurant wearing a coat with a fur collar, and the Internet exploded with scorn. Eighty-four percent of Ecouterre readers declared her hypocritical and offensive.

Let's all calm down, guys. She is giving the vegan diet a shot, grabbed her favorite coat on the way out the door, and wanted to get a nice dinner. Was it a little tone deaf? Yes. Poor planning? Sure. Is she a hypocrite? No! She's just a human, muddling her way through being a good person. Like we all are.

And then there was one of my favorite musical artists, Grimes, who decided to take a break from veganism for a day to eat (fair trade, made-from-humanely-raised-cows, percentage-of-profits-donated-to-charity, eco-friendly) Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Judging by the tenor of commenters on her off-the-cuff post, you would have thought she said, "I decided to try cannibalism today." Her response:

"I like to encourage people towards a type of veganism that is inviting and accepting. For the longest time I was vegan but I just wouldn't say I was because of the bad reputation of veganism. Most of the vegans i know are dogmatic *ssholes, and it completely turns people off. My brand of veganism is one wherein if your grandparents have no idea what you are talking about then you eat their beef stew rather than upset or confuse them. Or if you really want to have cake with an egg in it on the holidays then you have that rather than just not being a vegan because you don't want to give up occasionally having something that you love."

Preach, girlfriend.

This you're-going-to-burn-in-a-hell attitude isn't exclusive to vegans. The broader environmental category of do-gooders can be the same way. Those who care about the Earth can be judge-y and dogmatic in the name of advancing the cause. And some love to play the gotcha game. Al Gore has a big house that requires lots of energy! You had to fly to get to that eco-friendly resort! Ooohh, I found some bleach under your kitchen sink! (Seriously, I once had an apoplectic commenter excoriate me for eating chocolate.)

It's especially bad when it comes to corporations. As soon as any corporation sticks its neck out and takes a step forward to more sustainable and ethical business practices, the blame game begins. When Chipotle, who tries to source local and organic ingredients and even gives its employees organic t-shirts to wear, made a beautiful commercial about factory farming, Grist turned on the snark spigot, saying it was "brainwashing" consumers, and encouraging them to "buy more shit." Ugh, spare me.

I'm loathe to stand up for the big guy, but this kind of attitude is holding us back. Yes, greenwashing is rampant and companies should be called out when they fail to make good on their promises. And you have every right to be raging angry at companies that lobby, lie, obfuscate and knowingly poison us and the environment. But when McDonald's says they want to start sourcing sustainable meat, let's say, "That's a great idea. Let's talk about what that means," instead of skewering them for even trying. I can just imagine an executive at a large corporation saying, "Well, I would love to phase out our use of chemicals and publicize it, but we can't because then we'll get slammed for X Y and Z. It's just not worth it." How many times has that conversation happened high up in a boardroom? That's a shame.

When we do this as an environmental community, we send a message that you shouldn't even try. Don't bother eating organic, unless you'll also move to a smaller home, buy a hybrid, throw out all your conventional beauty products and replace them with homemade tinctures, plant a vegetable garden, only buy from thrift stores, never eat fast food again, donate 40 percent of your disposable income to the National Resource Defense Council, etc, etc.

If you take this eco-friendlier-than-thou attitude to its logical conclusion, no one is environmentally friendly. Unless, of course, you live in a log cabin with no electricity and provide all your own organic food from within five miles. Even Colin Beavan of No Impact Man fame, who labored through a year with reusable diapers, no dinners at restaurants, and no toilet paper, had a little bit of an impact. At the end, he skipped a trip to visit his in-laws because he felt so guilty about getting on a plane. Is that a good way to live? I mean, you could just kill yourself to fertilize the soil. There's that.

I'm not a big fan of water bottles. But when I see people walking down the street with a water bottle, I don't assume they're a self-involved jerk who doesn't care about the environment. Maybe there were no water fountains and they forgot their reusable water bottle. Maybe the water bottle was given to them free at a conference. Maybe they're a tourist and no one told him New York City water is clean and delicious. Maybe, they've never even learned about the impact of water bottles before, and how bottled water can be even dirtier than tap water. My role is to carry a reusable bottle of water with me. Plus, I keep a pitcher of tap water in my refrigerator (filtered using this eco-friendly charcoal method), and tell my guests from out of town that NYC water is great and please help themselves.

There's a middle ground. There's they guy who needs a truck for work and shops at Whole Foods. There's the environmentalist who loves living in the city and can't always make it out to the hiking trail. (Me.) There's the mom who wants to feed her children healthy food, but chooses to spend the family's extra money on activities and classes instead of organics. Every step toward a more sustainable lifestyle is good, and should be celebrated instead of used as moral ammo against us.

This nice little poster says it all.

Let's be kind and encouraging to each other. Yes, let's educate each other and have discussions. But let's not be an asshat.

You know I'm not perfect. I put an enormous amount of time and effort into living sustainably. I spend more on sustainable and organic clothing. I buy organic and local food. I seek out farm-to-table restaurants. I carry a reusable bottle and bag around with me at all times. I'll take a 35-minute walk before I hail a cab.

But I also love Reese's peanut butter cups. I have white linens and bleach them. Sometimes I go to the nail salon, and I've forgotten my toxin-free polish and -- gasp -- I get a conventional manicure. When my aunt goes out to buy freshly-made croissants, I didn't sniff them and ask, with disdain, if they are organic. I eat a freakin' croissant because she bought them for me out of love.

And it's just unfair to get mad at individuals. Get mad at the system instead. Get mad at the fact that it's easier and cheaper to buy processed food. Get mad at the fact that there are less than a half-dozen nail salons in NYC that use non-toxic nail polishes and 700 that smell like cancer. Get mad at the fact that it's nearly impossible to live your life free of plastic. Get made at ordering in and getting four plastic-wrapped fork and knife sets with it. Unless you make it feasible for everyone to live your version of a perfect lifestyle, it's unfair to get mad at people to ask them to spend more and jump through hoops to get there. It's much more useful to support a plastic bag ban in your city, then glare your neighbor down when he totes his groceries inside with plastic bags. Given the choice between supporting the passage of the Chemical Safety Improvement Act and telling my sister she's a bad mom for buying conventional baby products, I'll choose the former. (She's a great mom, by the way.)

So be encouraging to your friends and family. Bring organic wine to the party. Suggest an amazing farm-to-table restaurant for dinner. Pin looks from your favorite sustainable designers all over Pinterest. Invite your friends on a hike. Educate them about issues when you have an opening, and drop it if they say their priorities lay elsewhere. Stick little, fold-up reusable bags in their stockings.

Just don't be an asshole. Please? Because not only will your friends dislike you, they'll dislike all environmentalists. And that just isn't fair to me. Or the environment.