It was a bit warmer than I expected at a friend’s apartment when I went over for dinner. I was genuinely shocked to discover why: Well, Brian is, you know, ecological, so we didn’t turn on the air conditioning because he might get upset.I remember having had a brief conversation with this friend about biofuels, and at some point mentioning to him that DC put a tax on plastic bags, which I thought was a good idea. I know I’m generally not very shy about my opinions (I’m more reserved online than in person), but I certainly never gave him a lecture about his lifestyle.
I tried to find an elegant way of backing out of the situation. Look, I’d really be the last person to lecture anyone about environmental impact. I sit in an air conditioned office all day long (and quite enjoy it on hot summer days). I’ve spent ten years living outside the United States and flying back home to see relatives. So no, it would genuinely not be in the slightest bit upset me if you turned on the air. And I don’t walk into people’s homes and tell them what to do.
It’s not the first time I’ve gotten this sort of reaction. I remember asking someone about buying furniture in Brazil and how to know if something hadn’t come from ill-gotten wood. That person not long after that told me he didn’t like talking to me about his consumption habits because they thought I’d give them a hard time.
My conclusion: very casually mentioning some basic interest in an environmentally-linked issue – recycling, energy conservation, public transit – can leave behind an indelible impression of having been judged. I work hard at not preaching at people no matter how strongly I feel about an issue because I know it makes them feel resentful and judged and leaves them wanting to talk to someone else. It’s very easy to slight a person with offhand comments about whether or not they eat meat, shop at certain stores, or get plastic bags a supermarket.
Or, the flip side of this, it’s easy to make people feel guilty for not knowing which companies they’re supposed to be boycotting for doing business in countries with governments that they aren’t supposed to be supporting. I did plenty of this as a teenager, until I learned not to, the slow and hard way: having people one after another tell me to piss off, or point out that I implicitly support all sorts of companies or governments or labor practices that somebody else might have a problem with.
I avoided those confrontations so much that I almost wanted to keep my interest in the environment and sustainability a secret. And I did, for a long time, channeling that interest into reading nerdy blogs, position papers and PDFs about alternative energy, Smart Grids, waste management, and second generation biofuels. It was a lot of fun (yes, I’m that boring). Fun for a while, until the isolation kicked in. Until it got to the point where sitting alone and letting this stuff churn through my head really was worse than being thought of as the guy who would get his environmental panties in a twist if someone turned on an air conditioner.
But I’ve come to realize something else in the process. A stray comment can really piss somebody off, but it can leave them genuinely thinking about something and in some cases even changing their behavior. Those are moments when I feel as if I had accidentally planted seeds and years later realized they had sprouted and grown.
Making people listen and think without pissing them off is a delicate balance I’ve never quite managed to pull off, and maybe never will. I may not be naturally good at it. I read up on nerdy stuff and then get in arguments about it, and people don’t always like that. So here I am, trying to be upfront about these things so that ultimately, hopefully, I can find communities in which discussing these issues doesn’t rub people the wrong way.
I’m still a reporter by profession, and have to be uber careful about what I say publicly, particularly when it relates to things that I cover. The growing list of reporters who have lost their jobs because of a stray tweet or a careless blog post is a constant reminder of this. I learned early on during my eight years in Venezuela to keep my head down and not get into any online shouting matches about Chavez or politics. It was the right thing and it saved me a lot of headaches. That’s yet another balancing act to strike in all this, but one I feel like I’m prepared for.