September 2010

Siobhan Neile Welch

nonfiction

The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism by Fran Hawthorne

It used to be a simple decision. Now it’s a Tuesday night and you’re standing in the cold, deserted dairy aisle of your neighborhood grocery store, trying to decide which carton of eggs to buy. Barn-laid? Vegetarian-fed? Cage-free with DHA or free-range with omega-3 added? Eventually, you balk and go with certified organic steel cut oats instead, taken home in a sack made of recycled water bottles, and served the next morning with local honey.

What’s simply breakfast to some might be an anxiety-inducing ethical dilemma for others. If this sounds familiar, no matter how neurotic, then perhaps you’re an overloaded liberal, overloaded with information about foreign affairs, the energy crisis, environmental issues, FDA regulations, labor laws, animal rights, and the ethical implications your daily decisions have on all of the above -- and your wallet.

Faced with so many choices in our consumer-driven society, journalist Fran Hawthorne was beginning to feel overwhelmed. Like any conscientious citizen, she believed consumer actions could be “political declarations, even tactics to improve the world,” and sought to live up to those ideals in her life. However, as a working mother living in Brooklyn’s Park Slope where going green is de rigueur, Hawthorne found herself having a hard time keeping up with the Joneses, not to mention all of the conflicting information: Should she buy local produce and support family farmers? Or should she buy organic and risk carbon emissions from shipping long distances? Should she become a vegan? Or should she eat meat that’s certified humane? Should she buy clothes from sweat shops, thus helping out otherwise impoverished third world nations? Or should she stick to Made in the USA labels and support labor unions at home?

Hawthorne’s book The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism covers a lot of ground in seeking answers to all of the questions that can arise on an otherwise uneventful trip to your neighborhood co-op. Predictably, the answers aren’t as clear-cut as she had hoped, and she discovers that her research only engenders more questions.

While the book is intended to be a survey of ethical dilemmas that face the average American consumer, Hawthorne could have given a more balanced view. Instead, each chapter tends to be laid out in a similar fashion: Hawthorne presents an key issue at length, gives a brief sound bite or two from the opposing side (without specifically quoting people or organizations), and then backs up her thesis with lengthy quotes from the usual suspects, spokespeople from organizations like PETA, The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Grist, ClimateChange, and the Eco-Mom Alliance, to name a few.

Though the book’s title seems to include anyone who falls under the broad term "liberal," it’s more telling that it excludes those who do not. There are also times Hawthorne risks alienating her intended audience. Her underlying sanctimonious tone may tend to turn off even self-professed liberals or liberal activists, who according to Hawthorne, "are in their twenties and thirties, in good health, with decent-paying, white-collar jobs and no kids or aging parents to care for. No doubt they have the time to sort through their recycling and the money to buy organic food.” When she asks, “How about those with more complex lives?” it becomes apparent that chapters like “Morals at the Mall” and “The People Who Make Our Stuff,” are aimed at people like herself.

Hawthorne tries to alleviate some of the stigma associated with the green movement’s holier-than-thou reputation, but throwaway lines like “even some activists are annoyed by their colleagues’ smugness and extremism. (Interestingly, they are usually the ones with children, and thus more grounded in reality)” make it difficult to get her point across to people who don’t think like her. Frankly, it seems like a missed opportunity to reach those who may not identify themselves with a particular lifestyle or ideology, but who still might have an interest in becoming more ethically conscious consumers.

After poring over the exhaustive research (and hopefully seeking answers from more than just left-leaning organizations), then what is the smart consumer to do? Hawthorne points out in the chapter “The Price of Purity” that making informed choices often doesn’t come cheap. She wonders “how can you weigh mere money against virtue?” but then acknowledges that the “working-class, lower-middle-class, and poor people can’t afford an extra $2.20 a week for organic eggs.” Presumably, she concludes the long term returns on conscientious consumer actions or “ethical premiums” are much greater than trying to stretch your dollar.

Perhaps the greatest return for Hawthorne is being relieved of her anxiety, if only temporarily (a company she touted in the book for good environmental practices is BP). Hawthorne says she wrote the book to sort out contradicting information, “along with the hope, of course, that I could find some answers that would relieve my guilt.” I think if she had been less motivated by guilt, her book would have felt less like preaching to the choir. As it is, the overloaded liberals who already identify with her moral dilemmas have done their homework. They’ve read up on carbon emissions and animal testing and fair labor laws. They’ve seen An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc., and Fast Food Nation, shop at farmers markets, and avoid Wal-Mart at all costs. And they’ve come to their own conclusions.

In the end, Hawthorne’s study gets reduced to a feeling of self-importance when she writes, “It’s kind of nice to think that when I mull over my every day decisions, I have so much in common with these big, famous entities that have the power to do so much good in the world.” A more journalistically-driven approach might have reached more conclusive answers than what strikes most of us as obvious: as a consumer you should make decisions based on those ideals you value most, do what you can, when you can, and try to make the world a better place, one small carbon footprint at a time.

The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism by Fran Hawthorne
Beacon Press
ISBN: 0822346060
240 Pages