Fran Hawthorne is the author of The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting,and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism. An excerpt from that book appears below. Click here to listen to an interview with Fran, then vote your values.
I have to confess that I was kind of smug about my lifestyle before I started this book. I knew that I took a lot of steps to save energy, to support unions and small stores, and to put my money in mutual funds that invested in causes I believe in, and I was quite pleased with myself for all of that. I used cloth napkins instead of paper. I never crossed a picket line. I brought my own shopping bags to stores. I recycled nearly every scrap of paper, metal, glass, and plastic possible, and then I bought recycled paper, and . . . Well, I won't go through my whole self-satisfied list right here. (If you're interested, it's in the book.) Let's just say that every time I opted for the more expensive, no-antibiotics, no-added-hormones ground beef, I thought I was managing to live pretty much according to my liberal values.
Except that guilty reminders were always tapping at the edge of my brain. If I really were an ethical consumer, wouldn't I buy the beef at the farmers market and the food co-op, not the chain grocery store? In fact, wouldn't I avoid eating beef altogether? But if the ethical goal is to avoid eating beef, why was anyone bothering to make antibiotic-free beef, if not for people like me who care about animal welfare and the environment? Wasn't this better for the environment, or at least the cow? And if the grocery store I sometimes went to was, as it claimed, an "individually owned and operated," unionized member of a purchasing and distribution cooperative, was it really an evil Big Chain?
So I started this book with a list of questions and contradictions, along with the hope, of course, that I could find some answers that would relieve my guilt. What I really wanted was an expert who could magically prove that the convenient supermarket was just as ethical as the once-a-week farmers market and the pricier natural-foods store. Instead, I produced more questions. And more. And my smugness deflated abruptly.
There was so much I wasn't doing, or was doing wrong. How dare I use an energy-gobbling clothes dryer, or buy plastic food wrap? Did I realize I'd helped put five local bookstores out of business by shopping at Barnes & Noble? Why wasn't all my money, not just some of it, in a socially responsible mutual fund? Maybe I was checking my carbon footprint, but what about my water footprint? Still, many things weren't clear. Should I support the labor movement by buying clothing from a union factory in North Carolina, or would it be more ethical to help women climb out of poverty in Bangladesh by buying the skirts and blouses they made in their sweatshops? Is a flatscreen computer monitor good because it wastes less energy than the bulky, older monitors or bad because of the dangerous chemical coating?
No kind of food seemed ethical or safe. Fish have the Omega-3 fatty acids that are good for your heart, but we've gobbled up so much that some of the most popular types—like Atlantic cod, halibut, grouper, and bluefin tuna—are dangerously depleted. Plus, other sea creatures get caught and killed in the fishing nets. And how about all the energy that's expended to fly these fresh-caught fish from way out in the ocean to our stores? As an alternative, about one-third of fish intended for human consumption are raised on industrial farms these days, but it's debatable whether that's much of an improvement. The captive fish often are shot up with dyes and antibiotics, while they pollute the nearby water with tons and tons of fish-poo. And what do they eat? Smaller, wild fish, churned into fish meal by the barrelful, a practice that now threatens to deplete species like herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines.
Nor could I trust any company. Nice, all-natural Tom's of Maine was bought out by Colgate-Palmolive Co., which uses animals to test the weird chemicals in its other toothpastes and soaps. Equally natural Burt's Bees also sold out to a conglomerate, Clorox Co. Even worse, Burt's Bees must produce tons of climate-altering carbon emissions by importing its honey from Ethiopia instead of relying on local bees. Some animal-rights groups have even criticized Ecover, the Belgian manufacturer of ultra-green household cleaners, soaps, and detergent, because it doesn't completely reject animal testing, according to The Rough Guide to Shopping with a Conscience.
I was swamped with self-doubt. Depressed. Panicked. I walked into bookstores and felt hopeless in front of shelves upon shelves groaning with books about ethical shopping and green lifestyles, all of them referring me to Web sites and more lists.
I interviewed dozens of environmental, financial, labor, and consumer activists, and they all had different angles and priorities. Each activist was so sure of the prime importance of his or her niche. I couldn't possibly live right, not without a lot more hours in the day for research, plenty of assistance to help with that research and shopping, a small fortune to pay the higher costs of things like wild Alaska salmon, and a mental breakdown.
According to the analysis of Jonathan Haidt, associate professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia, liberals ought to find it easier than conservatives to live according to their values. Haidt has defined what he sees as five psychological systems, each of which results in a set of related values: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Grouping them politically, he says all five are equally important to conservatives, while liberals care most about the first two sets, harm and fairness. Because conservatives have more values to juggle, "they have the potential for more conflict in daily life," Haidt told me. But liberals face other problems, because "liberals hyperdevelop their sensitivity to harm and fairness." When observant Mormons, who tend to be politically conservative, shun coffee and alcohol, they are living out the value of purity. When animal-rights activists broke into a mass-production egg farm in Maryland in 2001 and took away eight hens, they were, like good liberals, acting out the value of preventing harm (rescuing the hens from horrible conditions) while spurning the conservative value of authority (trespassing and stealing from the farm owner).
However, I don't think liberals are limited to two, easy-to juggle value sets. We liberals certainly can have a sense of loyalty and belonging to an in-group, as manifested when we join food co-ops and community-supported agriculture programs (or when we sneer at those who aren't in our group, like Bible Belt "rubes" and National Rifle Association members). And isn't buying organic a form of seeking purity?
Many liberals sure don't seem to have an easy time. Dilemmas bombarded me whenever I chatted with people about shopping, or food, or kids, or the weather, or almost any aspect of daily life. One friend careens constantly between buying super-expensive organic berries that are imported from Chile (the price! the carbon emissions!) or less-expensive local berries that aren't organic (the pesticides!). Another, with several children, fretted about whether a standard minivan or a hybrid SUV would use less gas and emit less carbon dioxide. At one point, members of my New York City synagogue were shooting e-mails back and forth as to how to find meat that was kosher, organic, and halfway affordable. The more research I dug into and the more experts I talked with, the more I realized that I simply couldn't resolve all the contradictions.
What I finally understood was that the questions I added to my list, as a result of writing this book, were more important than the answers.
I would not end this journey the same person I was when I began it. No, I couldn't possibly carry out every piece of advice I picked up. But after what I was learning, I couldn't continue doing all the same things I'd done before. My challenge would be to figure out which balls I would be able to keep in the air while I juggled, and which I could afford to drop.