Joe is an outspoken environmentalist. Anything that threatens or compromises the unspoiled integrity of the planet and every being in it rankles him to the core. He has no problem getting in the face of whomever he feels is violating the environment, whether a neighbor at the dumpster or a multinational corporation, on public TV.
His coworker Harry, on the other hand, couldn’t care less. To him, environmental issues are hogwash. Scientific studies don’t concern him, and belching factory smokestacks and giant sequoias are just two value-neutral pillars in his indifferent eyes.
One day, Harry’s puffing away on his Marlboro in the parking garage of their office building, dreaming of the good old days when he could just smoke at his desk like a normal human being. Before fanatics like that jerk, Joe, made such a big stink that the boss banned all smoking on the premises.
He drew a last smoky drag before flicking his still-lit cigarette butt over his shoulder. Breathing hard as he trudged back to the office, Harry noticed something moving behind one of the support pillars…
Joe had been having a tough day. One of the toughest days of his life. Not only had his girlfriend told him to take a walk, but the boss had chewed him out for a mistake he hadn’t made, and his eco-friendly investment portfolio had dropped almost 20% overnight.
He felt like screaming, crying, or cackling in ironic laughter – none of which would raise his esteem in his office-mates’ eyes. So he dutifully clocked out for his quarter-hour mid-morning break. Maybe a stroll in the park nearby would clear his head and get him through the day.
Walking through the lobby, he was almost out the door, when he noticed an open, nearly full pack of cigarettes on top of a recycling bin. His lips curled in disgust at the skeleton-finger white carcinogenic body and air polluters. Maybe whoever tossed them had smartened up and quit today. He hoped so. He remembered how happy he was when he finally managed to give them up nearly ten years ago.
Joe thought back on how those vile things had stolen his breath, how they’d leeched his money. How they’d endangered everyone around him, and how they’d… Suddenly his stomach clenched. Visions of his irrational boss, his heartless ex-girlfriend, and his tanking net worth circled around him, jabbing him ‘til he swooned. Joe glanced back at the cigarettes again in remembrance. But this time he remembered how they used to calm him down when things were falling apart.
Harry sidled closer to the support pillar. The familiar tobacco whiff put his mind at ease. It was obviously a fellow sufferer from the office’s draconian smoking policy, seeking some relief. Feeling a smokers’ camaraderie and seeking a partner to commiserate with, Harry stepped closer, curled around the pillar and gaped.
“HYPOCRITE!” he cried out, his eyes popping with gotcha glee.
Joe froze. His blood-drained face was whiter than the cigarette dangling from his numb and trembling fingers.
“Look at you!” Harry fairly cackled as his phone snapped the photo that would go viral in seconds. “The big, famous environmental activist. All your self-righteous blah-blah-blah, and you’re no different than me!”
“But…but…” Joe stammered. “I hadn’t planned to do it. I…I know it’s wrong. I’ve helped hundreds of people quit. It just got the best of me…”
“The best?” Harry jeered. “You’re the worst. At least I don’t claim to care about smoking – or even believe in those so-called warnings that ugly up half the packages. But you – claiming to be an environmentalist, going around telling the rest of us how to live – you’re a hypocrite, and that’s the worst thing of all!”
Is Harry right?
Has Joe, a man of ideals, which he feels strongly enough about to urge others to follow, lost all of his credibility because he fell victim to a momentary desire? Does this nullify all the merit of his environmental activism over the past decade? Does it debunk the merit of environmentalism itself? Is Joe really worse than Harry because he contradicted well-founded ideals that Harry had perfunctorily written off as meaningless, and thus felt himself on moral high ground when he trampled them?
Is Harry right? Consider the answer well. Because this is the very same answer one is bound by intellectual honesty to proffer the next time a religious person, tempted by money or love, is discovered to have failed to practice his professed ideals.
Joe shuffled back to the office, feeling like his world had caved in. Yeah, he’d fallen, and that made him feel like a creep. But deep down he also knew that his personal failure didn’t make smoking any less dangerous and worth protesting.
And it didn’t make the environment any less worthy of protection.