Eco Etiquette: Do You Have Obsessive-Compulsive Sustainability Disorder (OCSD)?

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

At first I thought it was great that my wife started going green. I liked when she switched us to organic food and taught the kids how to compost. But now she's obsessed: eliminating every possible chemical from our lives, trying to force me and the kids to eat vegetarian, making us give up our cell phones! How can I get my wife back?


It's true that ignorance is bliss. Most of the time, I find my work as an environmentalist empowering, but every once in a while I want to go back to the world where I could stuff my face with Hostess Cup Cakes and not think about the genetically-engineered-corn-turned-high-fructose-corn-syrup that's in them, or take a glorious 15-minute shower and just let the piping hot water pour down my back. You know why I have these fleeting fantasies? Because once you start realizing the innumerable ways that human beings are destroying this planet, it's very difficult not to become obsessed.

And it's a fine line between passion and obsession when it comes to the environment: We want people to get angry enough about fish disappearing from our oceans and BPA in our children's toys that they stand up and take action, whether that means contacting their legislators or making more informed decisions as consumers. But we don't want those same people to behave in such a way that they alienate their fellow human beings, or worse, the family and friends who love them the most.

Your wife isn't the only one struggling with finding the balance; lately, I've seen quite a few cases of obsessive-compulsive sustainability disorder -- or OCSD, as I like to call it. (Note: I didn't coin the term; that credit goes to Therese Mageau, author of green blog Urbal Tea.) Take the case of my friend, who recently threw a beautiful dinner party. In walked another friend's date, who at first sight of the menu demanded of the lovely hostess, "Well, is the lamb grass-fed? Because if it's not, I can't eat it."

Now, if you want to support grass-fed agriculture, even going so far as to buy it exclusively, that's fine and dandy. But to be so consumed by the issue that you fail to realize your rude behavior? Well, that's crossing over into OCSD territory.

You say that your wife's passion for eco issues is newfound, so it's likely that she simply has yet to develop a coping mechanism for all the doom and gloom out there; just as ER doctors have to find a way to emotionally process all the death around them so they are equipped to do their jobs, we greenies have to find a way to focus and prioritize our limited energies. The prospect of rising sea levels and Texas-sized floating trash vortexes is scary stuff, and a knee-jerk reaction for many is to start ultra-focusing on things that they can control, like food consumption and product purchases. But we have to accept that short of packing it all up and moving to an off-the-grid tent in some far-flung locale, there is no way to live a truly zero-footprint lifestyle, nor is it possible to live a completely pure one, free of every conceivable pesticide, hormone, antibiotic, and toxic chemical.

Speaking of harmful substances... If your wife's main motivation for purging the house of plastics and sending the cell phones packing is to protect your family's health, then obsessive worrying is counterproductive. Take it from genetically modified foods authority and activist Jeffrey Smith: He's understandably cautious about avoiding GM foods in his own diet, but even he believes it's not feasible to be perfect all the time. "I tell people: If you try, and you end up eating a GMO accidentally or because you have to, don't worry about it, because worrying is also toxic," he says. The lesson here? Take reasonable steps to protect yourself, and then take a deep breath.

If OCSD sufferers want to make a difference, it helps to stop dwelling on minutiae. It's easy to make a full-time job out of ensuring your kids only ingest organic, grass-fed, humane-certified, BPA-free foods, but if you took a step back, you might have the perspective to see that a larger change -- like moving your family out of smog-infested Los Angeles to the Oregon countryside -- might have greater impact on their long-term health. To some, such a move may seem obsessive, but to me it's just smart: True sustainability is about having the knowledge and the perspective to make the best possible decisions, so you don't have to sweat the small stuff.

If all else fails, encourage your wife to pursue an environmental career. A few years back, my husband and I had a tiff about how my bag-lady tendency to rescue recyclable waste around town was starting to scare him; it ended up being the impetus for me to finally find a way to meaningfully channel my obsessive green energies. And here I am, writing to all of you instead of toting around Styrofoam cups in my purse!