Saving the planet, killing the passion

Reports about ‘eco-quarrels’ causing relationship breakdowns show how green-think can poison human relationships.

David Bowden

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How was your Valentine’s Day? Did a special someone express their love for you by showering you with shallow, material goods? Did a long-burning frisson finally blossom into a furious orgy of non-locally sourced food, toxic chemical-rich perfume and unethical chocolate? Did an absent sweetheart rush halfway across the globe to be by your side, thus ramping up their air-miles and adding to the rape and pillage of Mother Earth?

At the very least I hope you got a drunken dog’n’duck down the local Dog & Duck. But perhaps we should also spare a thought for those looking for eco-friendly romance, and for whom Valentine’s must be a day of endless ethical dilemmas – where presents and acts of romance inevitably come with an expensive eco-price tag.

Finding The One can be hard work at the best of times, but even more so when you want that special person to share a worldview that ultimately regards human beings as polluters, to be valued according to the size of their carbon footprints and their recycling track record. That’s not very romantic, is it?

Yesterday’s edition of The Times (London) reported on environmentally-friendly couples increasingly clashing over green issues, like whose turn it is to take the recycling out, whether it’s more ethical to have a bath or a shower, or how often to switch the lights on. Such issues are, apparently, causing heartache and bitterness for many couples today, and not just amongst us emotionally illiterate and repressed Brits. In the touchy-feely US, too, therapists and relationship counsellors are increasingly reporting eco-disputes as a factor in relationship breakdown and family feuds.

Of course couples have always bickered over the most inane things, and you’d suspect the ones most affected by relationship breakdown are long past that stage where the question ‘Lights on or off?’ had a racier connotation than maintaining a sustainable energy supply. However, when it comes to ‘eco-quarrelling’, the arguments can become particularly poisonous, because for green couples it is only ‘scientific proof’ that can settle disputes. But with the data around climate change so vague and fluctuating, it’s hard to know which partner can rightly claim the moral high ground. ‘We end up having to agree to disagree until one of us finds evidence’, says one British woman, whose fantastically cheerless husband wanted to put down the family dog because it was an ‘unproductive’ use of energy.

Anyone unfortunate enough to be familiar with relationship guidance literature will be unsurprised by the conclusions drawn by experts around modern-day eco-strife. It can basically be summarised by ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’. According to the improbably named Christienne deTournay Birkhahn, executive director of US-based EcoMum Alliance, women often want their boyfriends to pay more attention to the home, while men ‘really want to make a large impact and aren’t interested in a small impact’. So men want to change the world, while women just want to sit around the house all day nagging their hubbies about switching the lights off? We really are being drawn back to the Dark Ages by eco-advisers.

As you’d expect, one of the recurring themes of eco-quarrels is disagreement over how to raise the kids: do parents have a responsibility to tell children that the world is going to end unless they recycle or not? But it also appears that children today are getting into arguments with their parents about how to save the planet. One 10-year-old girl, whose primary school has an oversubscribed eco club, boasts of pestering parents and teachers about their polluting ways. ‘Sometimes we do research at school and then I go back home with amazing facts that mum doesn’t know about’, the little madam told The Times.

There has been some concern that the great eco-apocalypse narrative and shock tactics of green activists are causing stress and trauma to kids. Both in the UK and in the US, young children are apparently losing sleep worrying about climate change. But the general attitude amongst many activists is also that playing on this fear encourages action. Indeed, the current UK government advertising campaign for Act on CO2 depicts a parent telling a bedtime story to his young daughter about the Climate Change Monster. (This is an odd message when you think about it, as surely one of the hallmarks of being a proper grown-up is knowing that monsters don’t exist? So is the ad trying to say that climate change is nothing really to worry about?)

More than just providing an insight into the lives of the unbearably tedious, the reports of ‘eco-quarrels’ between couples reveal not so much that environmentalism should be taken seriously as a political movement, but rather how essentially frivolous it is. After all, if you honestly felt that your fellow human beings were causing the imminent destruction of all human and natural life, would you really countenance sharing your life or bed with another person?

The bar-room romantic in me is inclined to believe that there are no political differences that can’t be transcended by love. But it seems to me more likely that the act of loving another human being offers us the possibility, even momentarily, of transcending our neuroses, hang-ups and concerns with the ephemera of life which do not really matter. Self-disgust, ultimately, is self-obsession: which does not sit readily with obsessing over someone else.

But, at the same time, this is also what is most dispiriting about these stories. Because you sense that these rowing couples actually do agree on the ‘big stuff’: that humanity shouldn’t leave a sizeable impact on the planet, and that we are toxic pollutants either to Gaia or to each other. It is that message which is infiltrating and affecting our most personal and life-shaping relations, between husbands and wives, and between parents and children.

David Bowden is a writer based in London and a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons said we should bin the eco-ritual of recycling and called plastic bag bans a bizarre cause célèbre. Nancy McDermott described the new phenomenon of the eco-mom. Emily Hill explored London’s rotten boroughs. Austin Williams highlighted the dangers of OCD: Obsessive Carbon Dogma. Or read more at spiked issue Ethical living.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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