Sami Grover: We’re All Hypocrites Now

Have you ever heard the term climate hypocrite? Maybe you’ve noticed as it was applied to some high profile celebrity or advocate flying across the globe to give a speech on reducing carbon emissions? Or maybe you feared you yourself may be one as you sat in an air- conditioned office promoting the planetary virtues of a vegan diet? Our guest today on Sea Change Radio has thought a lot about this. He’s environmental journalist Sami Grover, whose first book entitled “We’re All Hypocrites Now” reminds us that environmentalists need not make the perfect the enemy of the good. We discuss the difficulty of trying to live a carbon-reduced lifestyle in a modern world largely built by fossil fuels, we talk about ways to as he puts it, live a little lighter on the earth, and we explore how regular folks who are not at the forefront of systems change may still have an influence beyond simply modifying their personal lifestyle choices.

Narrator 0:01  This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Sami Grover  0:15  I am going to support systemic solutions that support affordable housing or support efforts to dismantle the sort of racist and segregationist policies of the past. It’s just about sort of widening the lens and sort of understanding where your role is. And if it’s always through the lens of consumer, we’re not going to get very far.

Narrator  0:34  Have you ever heard the term climate hypocrite? Maybe you’ve noticed as it was applied to some high profile celebrity or advocate flying across the globe to give a speech on reducing carbon emissions? Or maybe you feared you yourself may be one as you sat in an air conditioned office promoting the planetary virtues of a vegan diet. Our guest today on Sea Change Radio has thought a lot about this. He’s environmental journalist Sami Grover, whose first book entitled “We’re All Hypocrites Now” reminds us that environmentalists need not make the perfect the enemy of the good. We discuss the difficulty of trying to live a carbon reduced lifestyle in a modern world largely built by fossil fuels. We talk about ways to as he puts it, live a little lighter on the earth. And we explore how regular folks who are not at the forefront of systems change may still have an influence beyond simply modifying their personal lifestyle choices.

Alex Wise  1:52  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Sami Grover. Sami is an environmental journalist and an author and his latest book is entitled, “We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now: how embracing our limitations can unlock the power of a movement.” Sami, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Sami Grover  Thanks, Alex. Nice to be here.

Alex Wise – So we spoke for Sea Change Radio, like three or four years ago, when you had a piece in tree hugger, it was kind of the latest innovations in transportation at the time. But I’m pretty excited about this next leap in your evolution as a writer, “We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now” is terrific. Why don’t you first tell our listeners what you wanted to add to the climate discussion? I mean, there’s a lot of climate change-oriented books out there, but where did you want to make your mark?

Sami Grover  2:41  Sure. So the idea really like, as you know, I’ve been writing for Treehugger for gosh, you know, many years, probably 12 to 13 years now. And covered just sort of all kinds of lifestyle environmentalism, right, that, you know, biking to work, composting toilets, growing your own food, making sure talking mushroom logs, you know, living zero waste, living, minimal waste, buying renewable energy, owning solar panels, etc, etc. Right. So I’ve covered all these sort of lifestyle topics. And I think they’re all important. But I’ve also gotten frustrated by how climate kind of gets boiled down to lifestyle choice, right? You’ll often hear these sort of blanket statements. You can’t be an environmentalist, if you eat meat, or you can’t be an environmentalist, if you fly or whatever, that sort of selectively, selectively applied purity test is. And I couldn’t help but feel there’s sort of a middle ground right is that I do a lot in my personal life, right? I recycle I compost I drive a crappy old electric car. But honestly, I also do a lot of stuff that’s harmful to the planet, right? As you can probably tell from my accent. This is not a North Carolina accent. But I live in North Carolina, which means I regularly fly home to see family friends and kind of drink proper beer to mean warm beer. This right? Yeah. So it’s sort of an effort kind of threading that needle of saying that, yes, our lifestyle choices matter. But we also do not need to and probably shouldn’t expect to get ourselves to some kind of eco purity within a system that rewards the opposite. So it’s kind of trying to rethink why why we do what we do and think of it more as an act of mass mobilization and an effort at getting systemic change than as sort of some kind of individualistic pursuit of purity or, or perfection because I’m never going to reach perfection.

Alex Wise 4:37  No, and none of us are. So what are the ways that we can become less hypocritical in our own day to day lives when it comes to the climate, Sami?

Sami Grover  4:48  Well, it’s funny because I think you when I use the term hypocrite within the title, obviously it’s a little tongue in cheek, right, because I think one option is just to say it’s not hypocrisy, right? It’s not hypocrisy for me, too. We should read ourselves a fossil fuels. While I also live a lifestyle is partially fueled by fossil fuels. That’s just a reality of the situation. Same as, you know, if I were an alcoholic, it would not be hypocrisy to say I should probably drink class. This is one option is literally just to reject the idea of hypocrisy. The second option is to sort of embrace it and say, yeah, sure, I’m a hypocrite. Right? I absolutely, I do not yet live fully in the values that I espouse. But either way, both of those kind of decisions are by the by what’s most important is how can I be most effective at pursuing systems wide change? Sometimes that does mean making choices in my own life, right? If I can avoid a flight great if I can, if I choose or can go vegan, great, that is going to be helpful. But from my perspective, the most important thing you can do is look at your own individual circumstances. And rather having these blanket pronouncements of the specific thing you should do. You should look at your life and say, Okay, I’m Sami Grover, what opportunities do I have to make systems wide change, right, I’m a writer. So I apply myself there, I happen to work at a medium sized insurance company, I apply myself in those in those sort of spheres. I think we all have those kind of areas of our life where we have kind of kind of superpowers if you like, so finding those superpowers or opportunities, whether that’s sort of your place of worship, your place of study your school, or really tapping into whatever specific skills you have, and then looking more outwards than inwards as to how you can harness these ripple effects that start changing society as a whole. And borrow a friend of mine, Mary Hagler is an environmental, essayist and podcaster. She, she says that the single most important thing you can do as an individual is to stop thinking of yourself so much as an individual. And I think that’s fantastic. And I wish I’d written that line.

Alex Wise  6:58  Would this be a good analogy of what you’re trying to convey with the climate hypocrisy moniker? I’m thinking of dieting and the way people come up with diets. And I always believe that so much of effective eating habits are just being conscious of it. It’s not like, yes, you need to cut out X, Y, or Z as much as you need to be conscious of it. So a diet that eliminates any foods that have the letters R, and l in them will be effective, because you’re stopping before you eat. And you’re  thinking about it. And similarly, when you’re turning on the air conditioning, or turning on those lights, or turning off those lights, you’re thinking beyond yourself, you’re conscious, is that a fair analogy?

Sami Grover  7:43  I think it’s a super interesting analogy for me, right? Because I’m actually married to a dietician. And we talk about this a lot, right? The parallels between kind of trying to live a healthier lifestyle and trying to sort of move towards a healthier climate, and there are definitely things you can just do, right, we know that probably, you know, limiting your amount of highly processed foods is a good idea. But if you just start with that sort of List of like, I must avoid this ingredient, I must avoid that product, or I must run X amount more. It’s very, very hard to sustain that change. So one of the things that that she tells her clients a lot is that you need to start looking at the systems that create the behavior that you’re pursuing. Right? So rather than just saying like, I should not do this, it’s like, well, what are the what are the triggers that make you do that? Right? When do you find yourself reaching for the that food that might not be super healthy for you? Right? What are the triggers that make you pursue things that actually make you feel good, right? How do you surround yourself with people or influences that move you towards the kind of behaviors that you would prefer to be prioritizing in your life? So it’s really sort of it is it is that analogy, right of one being conscious, and then to sort of taking a step back. The other analogy I like to use is homelessness, right? So individuals experiencing homelessness for the longest time, a lot of social services, places would say, well, you need to get off drugs and alcohol. Before we get your house.

Alex Wise  9:15  Right. It’s very tautological thinking, right?

Sami Grover  9:18  Yeah. And then there’s a bunch of studies, and I, my, I’m half finished. So I’m gonna say this was a study in Finland actually don’t remember if that’s true, but it feels like the kind of thing the Finnish would do, where they did a study and said, you know, you give them all a house, essentially, the first thing you do is you find someone in apartment, and then a lot of the other stuff sort of falls into place. And it’s kind of the same on climate, right? We can all be ourselves up about like, you know, that one flight we took or the beef burger we ate, or we can say, Well, what are these barriers to change that all of us experience? You know, and when I say all of us like it’s a privileged subset of humanity that has these outsized carbon footprints, so I don’t want to, I don’t want to gloss over that effect. But it’s also true that we have been socialized. And we are surrounded by people who are who have similar sized carbon footprints. So even if we reduce our carbon footprint to zero, right You and I, Alex suddenly decide we’re going to live in a year and, you know, install solar panels and eat out of a dumpster doesn’t make a significant difference to the problem at hand unless we can bring others along for the ride. So we have to figure out a way to do what we’re doing in a manner that brings other people along. And that’s kind of the big crux of it. And I don’t think I don’t think I have all the solutions. I don’t think the book offers all the solutions. But I do talk to a lot of really fun and interesting people who try and answer answer pieces of the puzzle. And I think a lot of it comes down to meaning, right? Where do we find meaning in our lives?

(Music Break)

Alex Wise  11:50  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to environmental journalist and author Sami Grover. His new book is “We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now,” saying we were talking about drilling down to the many, many decisions that we make in our daily lives and how they inform whether or not were hypocrites when it comes to the climate? How often are we conscious of these decisions we make? From tree hugger, you cover lots of little inspiring stories that add up into a big body of work. For this book, you had to step back and look at a bigger picture. How was your process different in researching a book and getting inspired in terms of looking at the 900,000 foot view of the planet? versus focusing on you know, the latest innovation in train technology? Let’s say?

Sami Grover  12:39  Sure. Yes, that’s super interesting – because it was it was radically different. But I think the big part was sort of starting with this question, though, in some ways, you had to get simpler and smaller to start, right, which is just pose a question like, what does it mean to be an effective actor on climate? While accepting that you’re going to be an imperfect person, right? Or the or the other way to put it as I get? What does it mean to contribute to solutions, even as you accept that you are part of the problem? Right? So you start with a simple question like that. And I thought I had the answer when I set out which is like, we got to focus on systems, we got to focus on systems and kind of the lifestyle thing is a distraction. And actually, what I found was I kept talking to people who, in many ways, advocated this idea of systems change. And yet most of the people I spoke to were also doing things in their personal lives, right? Even the folks who were saying, like, you know, we it’s all about systems change, and we need to move beyond lifestyle environmentalism. A lot of those folks were like vegans or vegetarians or reducing their meat intake. So it was super interesting to kind of just start out with this question style with an assumption and then kind of test it right. And, and, and a lot of people who are often portrayed as being on the kind of opposite sides of this debate, if you like systems or behavior change, most of them ended up somewhere in the middle, right. Most of them said, of course, what I do in my personal life matters. But we cannot build a movement that relies solely on what I do in my personal life. And we cannot build a movement by judging those around us. We got to save judgment for those who really deserve it, if you like. And those would be the powerful and influential folks that we all need to unite to create those shifts.

Alex Wise  14:21  Yes, you highlight Jamie Margolin, who’s a Colombian-American teen climate activist in the book, and you talk about this righteous anger and wanting to blame somebody. And I think when you’re talking about the divisive nature of climate change, especially in this country, we get to that blaming mentality, people don’t want to necessarily feel like they’re the problem. Nobody wants to be the problem. And so it becomes a vicious cycle of blame instead of productive decision making.

Sami Grover  14:54  You know, I think often we say like X, Y or Z emotional responses invalid, right? Like I often hear among some corners of the environmental movement, like we can’t act out of fear, right? And I don’t think humans would have gotten very far if we didn’t act out of fear. And equally, like sometimes we say like, anger is a bad word or blame is a bad word, or shame or guilt or all of these things. And actually, they’re all really useful. They’re just parts of a toolbox. So from Jamie Mongolians perspective, for example, it makes absolute sense to be furious, right? You’re a young person that has inherited this this crisis. But what are you going to do with that fury? To my mind, you need to direct it where the majority of the blame lies. So another young activist who everyone’s heard of right, gretta tonberry, but I think her, her, her I’m gonna paraphrase. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but she says something along the lines of if everybody’s responsible, then nobody is to blame. And yet some people are more to blame than others. Right. I think that was one of the really interesting parts of the books I spoke to a lady called Jennifer Jacquie, I think, is how you pronounce her name. And she’s done a lot of work on, on just rethinking, shame and guilt, and rethinking when and how they useful. So rather than saying, Is it good? Or is it bad to use shame and guilt within the environmental discourse? I think it’s more important to say, how do we use them? Right? Who do we shame at because because they’re absolutely useful tools. sociologically, they’re useful, sort of regulatory forces within our society. But they work best when they are focused. If you spread it around too much, then it’s kind of like antibiotics, right? You use them too often, and they lose their power.

Alex Wise 16:37  I guess the disconnect that I would have, if I were Jamie, who is looking at this saying, I have this righteous anger, and I want to hold the powerful, accountable. And that sounds great. If you’ve created a soapbox for yourself, where you can affect change, high levels. But we also talked about having conversations about climate change, like we have about race in this country. And it’s difficult to kind of leap frog from the community level and being a blamer of your neighbor into holding, let’s say, Jeff Bezos accountable. That’s a very different conversation.

Sami Grover  17:13  Yeah, and I think one is, one makes a lot more sense than the other. Right. And there’s actually the the race analogy is an interesting one is one of the things he talks about is just this idea of guilt, like, when is it useful? And when does it get in the way, and I think a lot of the conversation about race recently, you know, if you look at the the sort of aftermath of the death of George Floyd, let a lot of sort of what a better way to look a lot of white people right to explore kind of their complicity in race. And that’s a good thing, in a way. But it can also become very performative and very sort of inward looking. And there was an essay I referenced in the book by a lady called Isiah Hales, I think I’m pronouncing her name correctly, but where she kind of says, like, white guilt doesn’t really help me, right, like, move on past the guilt and fix the problem. And I think that there’s a, there’s a similar analogy with climate change in that feeling guilty is a good push to action. But it doesn’t necessarily guide what I should do. Right. If I if I send to the guilt in deciding what I’m going to do, then it becomes more about my personal absolution than it does about strategically identifying a problem and then going all at that problem to solve it. Right. And so that’s the same with blame or guilt, right? It’s the same thing of just play it through, play it through every time and say like, what am I trying to achieve here? Is this the best tool for the job, I’m trying to get this cooperation to change their practices, shaming might be exactly the tool for the job. But if I’m trying to change my community’s behavior, and it’s a behavior that’s widely held and widely, widely practiced within that community, like meat eating or driving an SUV, then if you’re standing on the corner, and you’re the one person doing that shaming, that’s probably not going to be effective. So you’re going to need to find a different tactic, right? But conversely, like you might find that flying in private jets is this minority activity. And we can we can focus our efforts there and their shame might be absolutely useful. So just always playing through the role you’re playing, and the goal you’re trying to achieve before you decide which tactic or which tool or which emotion is right or wrong, is I think that kind of higher value.

Alex Wise  19:23  And I think what you’re talking about with the shame and the guilt and putting that into action, as I’m thinking of the housing situation here, where I live in San Francisco, where you have a lot of nimbyism, a lot of not in my backyard activists who don’t want affordable public housing in their backyard, devaluing their own homes while in the same hypocritical breath. They have a Black Lives Matter sign in their two and a half million dollar house. So right this disconnect that becomes kind of the wool that we put over our societal eyes too often?

Sami Grover  20:03  Well, yeah. And then it’s always this part of the problem. Amy Westerfeld talks about this a lot of just part of the problem is just that we view these inherently systemic problems through this individualistic lens. Right? So, you know, when we talk about gentrification, for example, sometimes feels like we spend more time talking about whether it’s okay to eat brunch or not, then we do one saying, like, what are the planning policies that are contributed to this problem? What are the taxation policies that are contributing to this problem? What are the, you know, labor laws and the minimum wage laws and you know, all of these systemic issues that you just cannot solve through through your own individual action, there might be little things you can do here or there, but you’re sort of pushing, you know, you’re pushing deckchairs around if you like, unless you also take whatever it is you’re doing, right? It’s good. If you buy from a local, local business that that pays a living wage, that’s a good stop. But it’s certainly not going to solve the problem unless you also say, Okay, I am going to support systemic solutions that support affordable housing or support efforts to dismantle the sort of racist and segregationist policies of the past. It’s just about sort of widening the lens and sort of understanding where your role is. And if it’s always through the lens of consumer, we’re not going to get very far.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise  22:15 This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to environmental journalist and author Sami Grover. His new book is entitled, “We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now: how embracing our limitations can unlock the power of a movement.” Let’s turn to Peter Kamus, somebody you interviewed a NASA scientist for your book, he suggests that we need to focus on the joyful, quote, Enriching aspects of the journey so that others can see the benefit in making a change. How does that relate to your general thesis?

Sami Grover  22:56  I mean, I think he’s absolutely onto something right, like Peter and I, it’s interesting, when before we spoke, I think we both had a bit of apprehension about speaking to each other, because Peters done a lot more than I have to cut his carbon footprint, right. And when I first pitched him, my book, my working title for the book was, was in defense of eco hypocrisy. And that didn’t really resonate with him, right. He, I think he was expecting kind of a rousing defense of carrying on as normal, right, and focusing entirely on the, you know, 100 corporations that caused climate change, or whatever, you know, you know, you’re familiar with the arguments. What we found is we’re both coming from a very similar perspective, which is just this idea of nobody’s going to be perfect within a system that’s so profoundly imperfect. But we can all start making changes that then have ripple effects. And he’s, he’s, you know, I think he’s spoken very openly about one he finds a lot of joy in this journey, right of getting closer to aligning his values with his actions. And I think that’s really inspiring. He’s also given interviews about how hard it is, though, to write, I think there was a there was an interview with pro publica that went around just sort of saying how difficult it is to kind of stare into the abyss, right? And, and look at how serious climate change is, and to go all out, you know, kind of getting your own carbon footprint so low and then not seeing all all around you following in those footsteps. So I think there has to be this element of, you got to find your passion, you got to find your strengths. And you got to pursue that, that that place where you If so, I spoke earlier about sort of finding your superpower. I think part of finding your superpower is is finding what makes you tick right? If you’re really passionate about cycling, then put most of your effort into there. Right and, and if you’re really passionate about food and cooking, then maybe that’s that’s where you need to to focus your efforts. It’s really about kind of leaning into those areas that we find joy and passion in because those are the ones we’re going to build To sustain for the long term, just in the same way, as you know, if you’re going to, if you’re going to sustain a diet, right, like pursue the things that you really enjoy, enjoy eating, rather than going down, sort of the flipside can be sometimes the Meg, Meg Walker is the activist I spoke to in the book and she’s she spoke about this idea of, sometimes the sort of extreme pursuit of a minimalist carbon footprint can almost feel like an eating disorder. And that’s something she herself has struggled with. And she was saying this, there’s parallels in terms of just trying to sort of erase yourself out of the picture, as opposed to, you know, where can I? Where can I make the biggest change?

Alex Wise  25:40  So play to your strengths is the message here? And that can relate to businesses as well, right?

Sami Grover  25:46  Yeah, absolutely. So I think we often talk about, there’s a lot of talk about corporate responsibility, right. And the way we’ve looked at that is, is sort of how to be less bad. And honestly, that that would be nice if we had 100 years to kind of gradually walk ourselves off a cliff. But what what I talked about in the book is that just as individuals can’t just solve climate, the climate crisis by being less bad, right, reducing our own footprint, we have to look outwards, businesses kind of have to do the same to we that if you’re a business that wants to be responsible, then you really have to engage with some thorny issues around some of the fundamental tenets of capitalism really, right. Like how do we get our economy off of fossil fuels? Can we even pursue, you know, endless economic growth? Those are the kinds of questions that I wish businesses spent more time concerned concerned about? Yes, it’s great that a company is recycling more or buying green energy or whatever it is, but but really engaging on those topics of how do we move on a society wide scale beyond fossil fuels beyond extractive industries and kind of beyond an extractive and exploitative economy? Those are the kind of topics we’re going to have to tackle if we’re if we’re serious about business being part of the solution. And that that’s really interesting. And if you look at some of the big brands, like Patagonia that made a name for themselves, selling jackets made out of recycled soda bottles or whatever, they’re actually really engaging some of these topics now and saying, like, Hey, we’re going to take these Trump tax cuts, and we’re going to give them back to people who are fighting climate change, right? There’s a search engine quarter cosia, that’s doing really interesting stuff in terms of they’ve agreed to pay any staff that are arrested, protesting fossil fuel projects, they’re going to pay their bail. And this is one of the coolest Employee Benefits I’ve ever heard of. So how do we engage as a as a business community? Say we become quite involved in sort of the good for the world business community, if you like, how do we really engage sort of and really start discussing what what does capitalism look like in a sustainable economy is capitalism isn’t even feasible in a sustainable economy, or do we have to develop alternatives?

Alex Wise  27:53  Well, I hope our listeners pick up your new book. It’s entitled “We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now,” Sami Grover, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Sami Grover  28:00  Thanks, Alex. It was fun.

Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise, additional music by Antibalas, The Beatles and Paul Simon – check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcasts. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.