The myth of “all-or-nothing” sustainable living


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Whether you’re a staunch environmental activist who’s ready to rally or you’re just thinking about maybe starting to take a reuseable bag to the grocery store if you remember it, you have probably wondered about the supposed hypocrisy in “going green.” You may be worried about what sustainable living will do to your identity, and whether it will make you vulnerable to attack. We see this too often with all types of lifestyle choices: if someone is not willing to be the ideal example of a sustainable person or activist, they choose instead the other extreme: not getting involved at all.

This all-or-nothing way of thinking is harmful. In fact, it’s a combination of two fallacies: ad hominem and false dichotomy, which overlap to form a maxim called falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, meaning “false in one thing, false in everything.” The maxim developed as a Roman legal principle to dismiss witnesses based on their character; if a testimony included any mistakes, it was struck completely, no matter how helpful or truthful the rest of the statements may have been.

Let’s get the ad hominem part out of the way first: it’s nasty and we have no need for it on a loving planet. Though this Latin term is recognized in logic as a fallacy, it still runs rampant in our culture. You’ve seen it in an ugly political debate or a family fight: an ad hominem fallacy occurs when an argument becomes less about ideas and more about the character of the person presenting the ideas. Attacking a person does not address the reasoning behind the opinions we form, but rather shames the messenger. Here at the New Southerner, we are not interested in shaming people, but in lifting them up.

Now let’s dissect the false dichotomy inherent in all-or-nothing thinking: a false dichotomy is often conflated with a false dilemma, or “the either-or fallacy.” The problem with either-or thinking is that it presents us with only two choices—you will either do all you can do to help the planet, or else sit back and do nothing—when in fact there are usually a multitude of possible responses with a lot of subtlety and distinction along the way. It’s rarely accurate to suggest, for example, that you either stay at your job or become homeless, or that you either avoid palm oil products or you hate animals. I think humans are particularly susceptible to the either-or fallacy because it mirrors what we expect from our language: the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure noted that human language is constructed of binary oppositions; we tend to define one thing by what it’s not, and see everything in pairs of opposites.

But is it fair to claim that art and science are on opposite ends of the spectrum? That art cannot be commercial and commerce cannot be artful? Is it fair to criticize someone who is passionate about reducing greenhouse gas emissions for the miles they travel by plane to share GHG reduction strategies? Any time you’re going all in or all out, there’s bound to be some kind of negative consequence; there’s no single truly virtuous way of doing things.

So, if you need permission, here it is: you don’t have to be 100% sustainable 100% of the time. And please, please don’t assume the only other possibility is to never bother with it at all. Stick to your principles, live by them when you can, and cut yourself some slack the rest of time.

For a more detailed account of the flaws of all-or-nothing thinking and further inspiration to strive onward, check out my video version on the subject:


Maggie Brown, the Editor-in-Chief of New Southerner, is an Associate Professor at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College, where she has taught writing, literature, film studies, and rock & roll lit. She resides in Louisville, Kentucky, and enjoys giving talks and leading workshops about her experiences with the zero waste and vegan lifestyles. Her philosophy is that sustainability for the planet perfectly aligns with sustainability for the self.                                                  Contact:

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