Conservation, sacrifice, and motivation

Albert Camus once wrote that the only serious question in life is whether to kill oneself.  Not the kind of guy you want to invite over for a dinner party, I’m guessing.  Regardless, I often think about that quote within the context of the inevitably conspicuous consumption that entails the modern lifestyle.  To kill oneself is the ultimate act of sacrifice for the committed environmentalist!

Okay, okay, that’s garbage.  But it gets me thinking, what kind of sacrifices do I really make in the name of our dear friend the environment, and what are my motivations?  Here is a hastily compiled list:

“Sacrifice”                                   Impact             Motivation

No children                                Huge                Don’t want kids.

Recycle                                        Minimal          For the environment!

A/C high, heat low                  Minimal          I am cheap

Ride my bike a lot                   Modest           Exercise

Don’t eat beef                           Modest           For the environment!

No McMansion                       Modest           Too much to clean/insufficiently rich

Try not to buy stuff               Modest           I hate stuff (except super cool stuff)

Do conservation research  Minimal          I like birds & being outdoors

Limit my travel                       Large               I don’t actually do this

Buy an efficient car               Modest           I didn’t actually do this

Keep my cats inside               Minimal          I don’t actually do this

Become a vegan                       Large               I don’t actually do this

Not terribly impressive!  The single best thing I do for the environment is motivated by the fact that I can barely handle a dog and two cats.  The two things I do specifically to benefit the environment are neither terribly important nor difficult, in my opinion (although I do miss a good steak).  I wholly ignore some pretty big ones.  What’s more, I would argue on a per capita basis, the world needs more rather than less resource consumption – who am I to tell a poor Somali/Bangladeshi/insert-impoverished-country-here family not to strive for a longer, easier, more secure life?

But the thing is, I don’t think I’m alone.  I think even people in my field largely do what they’d like to do, with environmentally friendly activities largely coincident with other motivations.  But maybe I’m wrong.  Am I wrong, my fellow professional ecologists/nature lovers/tree huggers?  What do you do on a personal level to ensure a sustainable future?  What are your motivations?  Are we like cops, who should hold themselves to a higher standard and drive the speed limit even when everyone else is going 5 mph over?  Do we?

I try not to eat her and her friends  (and not just because she's a dairy cow)
I try not to eat her and her friends (and not just because she’s a dairy cow) Picture courtesy of

13 thoughts on “Conservation, sacrifice, and motivation

  1. Well buddy, I live in the good old US of A and most of my motivation is “can’t afford it.” I’m not sure what that says (maybe because I COULD afford these few beers…) but I can only postulate that it is financially difficult to be an environmentally-friendly citizen of the world, and that being aware, and sharing this awareness, is a good contribution. Be proud of what you stand for!

    “Sacrifice” Impact Motivation

    No children Huge Can’t afford it

    Recycle Minimal For the environment!

    A/C high, heat low Minimal I am cheap

    Ride my bike a lot Modest I don’t actually do this

    Don’t eat beef Modest I don’t actually do this

    No McMansion Modest Can’t afford it

    Try not to buy stuff Modest Can’t afford it

    Do conservation research Minimal Can’t get a job

    Limit my travel Large Can’t afford it

    Buy an efficient car Modest Bought a “fuel-efficient” diesel?

    Keep my cats inside Minimal Easier than worrying about losing them.

    Become a vegan Large I don’t actually do this

  2. I recycle!! Largely because my Andrew tells me I should…so I guess that’s not environmentally motivated…. I do have a super uber efficient car though! But that was largely because it was the only one I could afford at the time…..guess there are no contradictions to your theory here.

  3. Hmm, guilty of similar, but I suppose my effort at buying less disposable crap, intentional reduction of plastic use/purchase, monthly charitable donations to current passion of choice, and valiant gardening and local food purchases. And some biking to work.

    I bet you actually do more than you think, but it’s so automatic for you now that you forget to list it. Reading inspirational blogs also helps keep me open to new actions I can take that aren’t too overwhelming, and keeps my focus tinged with green.

    1. I actually think I do okay. In some respects I treat the accident of preferring a child-free life as a carte blanche for my other choices, which leaves me feeling pretty good overall. And I think that doing a lot of the small things really does add up, and someone like you should feel pretty good about how you lead your life.
      Really, much of what I’ve put on this blog is a vague and indirect reflection of how I feel about an emerging new paradigm regarding conservation science that in my view embraces the global human footprint as an inevitability. I just use myself as an example because I prefer to use myself rather than “them” as an example. At some point I’ll make that clear so I don’t keep coming off as a depressive tree hugging hippy 🙂

  4. Concscientious behavior toward the environment vs. our learned desires/ needs for, and pursuits of, instant gratification… A daily conundrum for the even somewhat educated, good-intentioned tree huggers like me. I’ll keep trying, but my kid DOES use a lot of stuff!

    1. If I had a kid as sweet and cute as yours I’d be cutting down virgin rainforest timber if it made him happy. Reason #1233 that it’s probably best I am not a parent.

  5. 13 years ago I decided to become a vegetarian because I traveled west and saw so many goddamn cows I realized that there was no way it could be sustainable. Actually my original goal was to be 90% vegetarian and restrict meat protein and fat to 10% or less, but once I got to 90% the last 10% was easy. I have wavered over the years (like when I was on chemo and tofu just was not cutting it or when I realized that flat branch was serving locally grown organic beef burgers) but more or less I have stuck to this plan. I feel good about it. It is a sacrifice for the environment because bacon tastes so good and it’s been sooo long since I’ve eaten it.

    I also believe that dedicating my career to conservation work has more than just a minimal impact that you attribute, maybe it’s my ego but I think my work will actually help save some species and help more efficiently manage our resources. Of course, there is nothing else I’d be happy doing in my professional life so maybe that’s not a sacrifice, however I bet I could make a ton of money as a statistician or a modeler for some wall street firm…Then with all that money I could do all sorts of things to benefit the environment.

    Speaking of money, I did invest 40% of my IRA in a mutual fund that is comprised of environmental companies (solar energy, etc.) and now after 5 years of under-performance it is only a 20% of the IRA. Think of the retirement security I am sacrificing because I wanted to invest in environmental companies. Anyway, I use my parents as a reference point to decide if I am making a decent effort to live what I preach and maybe that is setting the bar pretty low because they live in a McMansion in the Hamptons and eat swordfish once a week, but compared to where I came from?…I am sacrificing an awful lot. Even compared to my sister, who lives in the Raleigh. NC suburbs, drives a mini-van and pretty much only drinks water out of 12oz poland spring bottles, I am doing pretty well. That might be part of the problem here; it is really easy for us to feel good about the few sacrifices we are making because our culture is so consumptive and wasteful.

  6. Hey Dr XY its me, Scoe. I have a bucket in my shower that I collect shower water with then I use that to fill up my toilet after you know what. I have a recycle container at work that I chastise my coworkers to use then bring that home to recycle at my house every week. The hummus that I sell is sold in biodegradable corn based containers. I currently collect 175 gallons of water from my roof to use to water my plants. and my motorcycle gets 65 MPG.

    You can only do so much. Everyone ranks what they determine to be important differently. Which person is more eco, the redneck who drives a truck and lives in a rural area and gets most of his food (chicken, beef, eggs, dairy, veggies) locally or a yuppy who drives a prius, lives in a city and gets his food from a grocery store who sources their food although organically from around the country/continent?

    IDK – TTYL – PLR

    1. Scoe! I agree you can only do so much, and you certainly do a lot! The question is whether what we do, if it served as a model for 7.x billion people, is sustainable. I guess I would argue that most American lifestyles are not sustainable at that scale.

  7. yeah thought that I didnt really answer your question after I wrote it. No I dont think conservationist (that is what you are, right?) do any more, on the average, than other people. Now if you grouped other people into separate cultures and classes then yes conservationist probably do more than certain groups of people.

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