The green elephant in the room: no one mention the “E” word

Caroline Ponto, 22 November 2016, Tags:

Green elephantDonald Trump may have his doubts, but one thing most of us have in common is the belief that if we don’t reduce our carbon emissions, stop relying on fossil fuels and keep plastic waste to a minimum, we are on a downhill spiral towards Armageddon.

If nuclear war doesn’t kill us first, climate change probably will. We’re talking drought, flooding, other extreme weather conditions, power blackouts, food shortages and economic collapse. In short, our environment matters. But it’s not something we should mention.

The scientific community has made its position clear and forecasts devastating results if we don’t act right now. But the thing is, to have the impact required to halt or even reverse global warming, it requires a seismic shift in our collective behaviour, consumerist culture and most likely the end of capitalism.

You see, the endless desire for growth is unsustainable. We have a rapidly increasing global population and many already do not have access to basic resources such as clean water, food and healthcare. We also have a financial system driven solely by the need for people to spend more money and buy more stuff.

This sadly means, that we are producing food, clothes, toys, personal care products and just about everything you can think of just for the sake of getting someone to buy it – whether they need it or not. This creates astonishing levels of waste and often depends on (could not function without) the exploitation of poorer countries for their land and labour.

wealth dirstribution exploitation

Guilty conscience

Surely, in such progressive times (I use this phrase with caution, post-Brexit and Trump), with instant international communications, access to the Internet and world news, superior technology and modern collective thinking, it’s obvious that as consumers our choices have an impact on the world around us. Isn’t it?

Yet we float in a bubble of ignorant bliss, or (perhaps worse) make an effort to be careful consumers but won’t mention it to anyone for fear of creating a #awkward moment. Because no one likes to feel guilty. Because we’re all doing our best.

If we worry more about guilt than about the problem, we won’t ever change. We will allow corporate greenwashing so that we feel better abut our choices and ignore the fact that Coca-Cola is the parent company of our favourite smoothie brand, buy into the ethical promises of large-chain coffee shops and trust anything in green packaging without scrutinising the product first.

Green issues have become the new slavery in polite society. When taking tea, it would rather spoil the ambience if someone were to remind one of the Africans, dying of thirst in blistering cane fields to tend and harvest the very poison that sweetens your cake and Darjeeling. Things remain much the same.

slave chain gang

Avoiding awkward moments

Friend tells you that they have just booked a winter sun package tour, you say, “Ooh lovely, that will be a nice break before Christmas.” You are reluctant to remind her of the CO2 emissions her air miles will clock up, or the poverty and political unrest in her chosen North African destination. Instead you talk about all-inclusive cocktails and the pool.

Mummy friend invites you for family picnic, whips out pack of Tesco mini sausages. You firstly try to ignore that she shops in Tesco and then wonder what percentage of the processed piggy treats are actually made from pork. Oh, and which piece… of pork. You take one, you eat it, you say nothing of factory farming, you are grateful.

Boyfriend buys you pack of smellies for birthday, you act delighted, but inside wonder if he knows you at all. There are at least five reasons you won’t be using these products on your skin (contain palm oil, parabens, synthetic fragrance, not fairly traded, made in China). You will be donating this anonymously to the village fair tombola next week, as you are too ashamed even to re-gift it.

Mum presents you with lovingly-prepared salmon dinner, believing this is the ultimate in luxury (because she has lived through fondue sets, microwave cookbooks and breaded chicken kievs) and it would be rude to point out that this farmed fish is killing you all slowly, so you chow down and invite her to yours next time.

Colleagues come round with a tin of Roses and it would be petty to decline based on the fact that Cadbury’s are now owned by American food giant Kraft, have moved many of their factories to Eastern Europe, and there are only so many sweet wrapper collages your toddler can make – so those individual shiny plastic or foil squares are destined for landfill. You tell them you shouldn’t (for different reasons) but then take a toffee and the one with the hazelnut inside to enjoy quietly with your cup of tea.

Beating the B-S

How do we break this cycle? Why have we decided that it’s more important not to upset someone than address these huge, real issues. Yes, it's depressing to get into the details but they affect all of us, directly or indirectly and we can’t just hope that by ignoring them they will go away. So I challenge you to be honest. With yourself and those around you.

In this scary post-truth age, where facts are apparently no longer relevant, be bold. Tell your colleagues you would prefer an ethical gift in your secret santa. Tell your parents about peak oil and that leaving all their lights, heating and televisions on all day is costing much more than their energy bills. Ask for organic, ask where the meat is sourced at your staff Christmas lunch, buy decent tea, milk and sugar for the office. Do these things because you know they matter.

Until retailers are faced with these questions they will not examine their processes. Your friendly, local baker might very well be horrified if he knew the implications of using palm oil in his buns. Your favourite little Italian restaurant serves great homemade pasta, but the owner may have no idea where his butcher gets the beef for his Mamma’s special lasagne. The more we normalise these discussions, the less weird we will feel for initiating them and the more likely we are to start hearing favourable responses to our enquiries.

Stop worrying about being the party pooper, the tree-hugging hippy, the boring one with all the stats. Do it with love. Do it without judgement. Do it without scaremongering. Do it, and feel good about it, because it’s the right thing to do. Because it’s too much of a burden to bear all on your own. Because this is about communal responsibility; about everyone doing their bit; about all of us making small changes to create a big difference. Do it because one day they will thank you for it. Do it while you can.



Caroline Ponto is a mother of two, writer and aspiring Green Party politician. You can read more of her posts at, where she explores the ethical dilemmas that face her on a daily basis.

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