The 90% Rule

Last night, I met someone who produces no waste. Now, you could quibble over the technicalities—in an obvious biological sense, we all make some waste—but I was still impressed. She eschewed all food that came in disposal containers, bought things in packaging only if she could reuse it, and got all of her clothes second-hand. This woman literally did not have a trash-can in her house. There were a few fudges—think, “hygiene products”—but as far as I’m concerned, she was close enough that we could round down to “zero”.

Every time I encounter someone like this—who only eats local or fair-trade food, who exclusively gets clothes and other goods from thrift stores or freecycle, who strictly adheres to veganism—I always flirt with the idea of having a go at it myself. There’s something tempting about perfection, about the moral acuteness of “all” or “none” as opposed to “a little” and “a lot”. I’m certainly inspired enough by my encounter that I’m taking another look at everyday practices that, although I’ve rarely reflected on them, produce waste unnecessarily.

I’m pretty sure, though, that I’ll stop before I get to zero. Maybe I’m just lazy. But I have another justification, which I call the “90% rule”, or perhaps, the “law of diminishing returns to ethical consumption”. With any sort of lifestyle politics, you can get 90% of the way to where you want to be relatively easily, but afterward, progress is painful. Most of us could easily cut out 90% of our clothes purchases if we learned to take better care of them and sew (I’m speaking mostly to myself here). But when all of your boxers have holes in them (again, self-referential), it’s hard to find a fix that doesn’t involve buying something new.

When I first went vegan, I studiously read labels and spurned anything that “may contain less than 1% eggs or milk”. I religiously declined non-vegan food in all circumstances. I cut myself zero slack on special occasions. And, for all my efforts, my panic only deepened as I learned about the trace amounts of cow bones in refined sugar or rodents killed in the production of vegan crops.

Eventually, I just gave up. I still consider myself a vegan, but I know many militant animal rights activists who would challenge my application of the label. I rarely read ingredient labels; I cheat shameless on holidays; when I dumpster dive, all bets are off when it comes to baked goods. Like I said, maybe I’m just lazy. But I’ve also realized that our time is limited, and time spent finding soy cheese without trace amounts of whey is time not spent protesting or educating others.

We need moral exemplars—people like the woman I met—who show us that we can push the boundaries in our lives and our ethics. But I also think we need people (I’m not actually including myself here) that show us that living as a vegan, or non-waster, or locavore is more-or-less attainable without Herculean efforts. Maybe the biosphere has space for No Impact (Wo)Man and Some Impact Man.

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10 thoughts on “The 90% Rule

  1. Moderation in all things, nobody’s perfect, and a few other cliches.

    I too read No Impact Man and the Zero Waste Home, and toyed idly with attempting such things. Of course I didn’t do it. But somehow, just because I was thinking about it and I’m lazy, I’ve noticed that the garbage I produce seems to have halved itself in the last few years. No great accomplishment, but a little better than before.

    On the other hand, the concepts are spreading. I’m far from alone. Lots of people are lazy and taking out the garbage is one of the least-beloved chores. So producing less garbage appeals not only to our ecoconsciousness, but also to our laziness. Sounds like a winner to me.

    As for food, I’m not vegan or even vegetarian, but I do prefer not having hormones, antibiotics, and toxic chemicals in my radioactive food when possible, so I pay more for organics.

    As a very compromised person in an extremely compromised world, compromises seem to be the best I can manage, but I recognize when people like you are farther along than me, and that’s exactly what inspires people like me to try to do better.

    Thanks, Alex!

  2. I’m curious about your standard and, perhaps, reflective responses to the common critique of value-fetishism. Individual consumption choices are, ceteris paribus, so marginally significant that any simple appeal to utilitarianism is out of the question. If you prefer some kind of nonconsequentialism, then preoccupation with a single value seems to inevitably leave out others. Etc. etc.

      1. Sure, I think that veganism affects a relatively closely related “value” – that is to say, animal rights. My own personal experience is that by presenting veganism as an attainable, slightly flexible lifestyle, rather than a rigid cult-like practice, you can get more people to give it a try. As I made clear, I have intense admiration for people who are 100% uncompromising vegans: I think they are, unequivocally, “better” than I. But I do think there are trade-offs between purity and efficaciousness that have to be weighed.

      2. But I highlighted *value* because I wanted to differentiate it from some consequentialist measure. I think your reply doesn’t address that. That’s fine (and probably an important consideration, right or wrong,) but it still does not demonstrate how “ardent veganism” pushes other *values* out.

    1. All good points. I’m not a moral philosopher, but from a political perspective, you’re right that individual consumption choices are virtually meaningless. It’s for that reason that I think it’s important to think about strategy – that is to say, how you build an animal rights movement, rather than simply how to be the perfect vegan. Ethical consumption is an important practice, I think, for integrating people into social movements and getting them to think critically about their values, but it is not an end in and of itself.

    2. @thevegan…
      The idea is that, assuming a pluralism of non-consequentialist values, excessive (temporal) preoccupation with a single value inevitably imposes a tradeoff with identifying and making one’s life congruent to other values. Assuming that some kind of reflective endorsement (depending on your meta-ethical assumptions) is required for one to take a value into account, we’re necessarily barred from perfect consistency, even only accounting for the epistemological difficulty (which is more intuitively salient for the non-consequentialist than for the consequentialist). A lot of concepts here require clarification, but I was less making this point for its own sake than to direct Alex to what I think is a common line of critique (hence the *etc.’s*).

      @avbarnard
      As befits a critical progressive, your position avoids the kind of capitalist-friendly lifestyle activism that’s become a fashionable new cultural foe for the leftist public intellectuals. Rightly so, though it does seem increasing David and Goliathan: veganism to most of America grows more and more synonymous with health-consciousness.

      1. @thevegan…
        I just reread my response and was awash with contempt. You’ll have to excuse my professional habits. In less narcotizing words: serious moral thinking takes time and care, but is unavoidable, so being in one sense “good” implies tradeoffs. I’m not talking about necessary conflicts of values, which is how I think you understood my original post; and I don’t have a concise example that demonstrates what I mean.

      2. There seems to be some assumption of a zero-sum-game. I’m not sure why that is?

        In fact, since we’re *still* talking about consequentialism rather than strict values, I’ll add my own anecdotes. I know many who have become *more* engaged with various values as a result of first engaging with animal rights – seems veganism added an elasticity not otherwise present.

        It it’s irrefutable that we all have limited resources but, notwithstanding, I would still dearly like to hear a real world example of these supposed trade-offs.

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