My environmentalist husband won't let me use the dryer

I get by without a car and eat vegetarian, but sometimes it's a bit much.

By Cary Tennis

Published February 18, 2009 11:29AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am a longtime reader and fan of your column. I'm not really sure that my problem falls into any of the usual categories. My husband is a hard-core environmentalist. I am also, but to a lesser degree. I've made many concessions to try to make him happy, such as living without a car and becoming a vegetarian. I am the main breadwinner and work 50+ hours a week, plus I run a small business on the side to help put him through graduate school. I don't have a lot of free time, but I do a lot of the housework. Here is where the problem comes in.

My husband becomes enraged if he catches me putting clothes in the dryer (instead of hanging them outside) or if I forget to turn down the water heater (he insists that it be turned off whenever we're not using immediately.) I've gone around and around with him, trying to point out that there are reasonable limits to what a person can do to save energy and decrease her carbon footprint.

Sometimes my time is simply more valuable than the energy I burn to save it. He doesn't see it this way and accuses me of being lazy and uncommitted. I'm feeling increasingly inadequate and resentful. Over time he is becoming more and more extreme. Apart from the environmental thing, my husband is a very sweet and gentle person. It's like he's morphing into Captain Planet. Or the Planetary Avenger. Or something. Can you offer any fresh insights into the situation?


NC Hippie

Dear NC Hippie,

I'm sure you have heard of the Tragedy of the Commons, and of the law of unintended consequences. So let's experiment with a variation on that.

Picture a community of environmental activists. They have common goals: to maximize their impact on fossil-fuel use and environmental degradation by as many means as possible, both in their domestic lives and in the lives of others, and in the economic life of the country. Each environmentalist is struggling to get the greatest environment-saving bang for the buck.

Each environmentalist has a mate.

Each environmentalist, because the cause of environmentalism is the most important thing in life, more important than personal relationships or the happiness of others, finds that by coercion and manipulation it is possible to cause the mate to provide more financial support and labor than would be fair in a typical arrangement. Each environmentalist also browbeats the mate into performing essentially ritualistic practices -- hanging clothes out to dry, for instance, and not driving a car. Thus the environmentalist achieves status in his community at the expense of a personal relationship. In this way the environmentalist advances his or her career and appears to be furthering the cause.

But unbeknownst to each environmentalist (they don't talk with their colleagues about their relationships, but only about their work, and the cause), each mate, or spouse, is seething with resentment. Each mate is unhappy, and in this unhappiness, he or she complains to many people privately about the environmentalist, how selfish he is, how he has no time for a balanced life; eventually, the mate begins to talk down the whole cause, questioning whether, if the environmentalist in her life behaves so cruelly, there might be something fundamentally wrong with the whole idea of environmentalism.

As a result of this personal casting of aspersions, people begin to dislike and avoid the environmentalist. As he feels people pull away, he becomes more extreme in his views, which in turn accelerates the process of isolation. Eventually, this deterioration of his standing, repeated many times over in the lives of many other, also isolated, environmentalists, eventually degrades the social commons for all environmentalists. No single environmentalist can see the effect. Each individual environmentalist thinks things are going well -- each feels, personally, almost no blowback.

The blowback, like some gaseous by-product, is being shunted outside of the relationship into the culture at large. Unbeknownst to each environmentalist, his mate's social network is getting a continual, withering message about both this individual and environmentalism in general. And it is this personal, believable message that becomes the defining effect of the environmentalist: not his work to save the environment, but his bad treatment of his spouse, repeated throughout a huge, networked community. In this way he discredits himself and his cause. Yet he never really understands what is happening.

This parable has a sad ending. Eventually each environmentalist finds himself divorced and unemployed. He finds it necessary to move into a trailer park. The trailer park becomes known for the savage, rabid pack of isolated environmentalists who live there and do their laundry by hand in the creek. They bond only with each other. They withdraw into a cult as the environment continues to deteriorate. Eventually, the pressures of living in poverty force them to prey on each other.

The sheriff comes out, expecting bikers. He finds environmentalists.

On a personal note, it seems to me that your husband is treating you unfairly and acting rather like a zealot. One thing that seems to happen when we try to right the wrongs that have been done to the planet is we divide phenomena into the clean and the dirty, the good for the planet and the bad for the planet. We take a dualistic view, with religious feeling, as though we believed that if we adhere closely enough to a doctrine, we will be saved. We begin acting ritualistically. Whether our actions have a demonstrable effect on the environment becomes less important than acting in a virtuous manner. So we go out in the yard and proudly hang our clothes up to dry. If someone comes along and demonstrates to us the negative consequences of our choice to hang clothes on the line  -- given what else we might be doing with our time to improve the environment -- we feel that he is not one of the faithful, that he doesn't get it. If everyone hung their clothes out to dry, if everyone stopped using a dryer, we could save so much energy! we think. But in acting on this unlikely hypothetical possibility, we fail to take actions that could really affect thousands of people, and actually help change the course of the planet. And in forcing others to adhere to our doctrine, to the detriment of our personal relationship, we can do more harm than good to our own cause.

Environmental stewardship need not be a form of penance for past errors. And it's too late to save the planet by reverting to primitivism.


What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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