Fran Hawthorne, a self-professed liberal, found herself arguing one day with a like-minded friend over the selling points of Whole Foods. Her friend praised the food chain’s organic, green products, but Hawthorne criticized the company for being against unions and for leading to the closures of small local stores. “It really struck me that two people in basic agreement in their ethical views could be so opposed on a supposedly progressive store,” the author and journalist says. Her latest book, The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting, and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism, expands on that realization. Hawthorne, who has written for the New York Times, Newsday, and The Scientist, recently chatted with U.S. News about the difficulties of living ethically in a time of heightened political awareness. Excerpts:
What do you mean when you say liberals are “overloaded”?
I’m examining living by certain values, and not just earning a paycheck, keeping your house clean, and taking care of your kids, but also trying to make sure that, in the process, you are not adding to the garbage or carbon emissions that are hurting the Earth. Cutting back on your use of resources, trying not to harm animals, trying not to exploit the people who make the things that you buy. You’re trying to help the local storekeeper, but you’re also trying to help the subsistence farmer in Africa who needs Western markets to survive. It’s trying to do all these things you believe in, and many of them are contradictory. You might have 10 priorities that matter to you. If you were trying to follow all these values that you care about, then every time you went to the store just to buy apples, you might stand there for several minutes, debating.
What types of contradictions do you mean?
For example, do I want to buy imported organic apples from New Zealand or the local New York State apples that are not organic? Organic is good for the Earth and body, but I don’t want the carbon emissions from shipping it.
Is it just liberals that are facing these dilemmas? Why not, say, conservatives?
I’m looking at what are typically seen as left-wing values. But many of these are shared by people who are more centrist, even right-wing. People on the right, of course, might have vales of their own. I’m sure that everybody who tries to live by ethical values beyond their basic practical needs faces some degree of overload and contradiction. I wouldn’t want to measure who has more. But it’s the liberals who I know best.
Give me an example of a daily dilemma that an “overloaded liberal” might face.
Take the issue of who makes your clothing. It’s really hard to find clothing that wasn’t made in a sweatshop in Bangladesh or Vietnam or China. However, I do know that people overseas in very poor countries desparately need to sell to me. What looks like a sweatshop job to us might actually be a desirable job compared to the alternative—starving on the farm or prostitution. I want to support these workers overseas, but then I think of all the carbon emissions to ship those products. Shopping for clothing is stressful enough already because it has to look good, it has to fit well, and it has to be affordable. And then you’re going to worry about who made it and where? Thinking along these lines, you might never buy anything. There are too many issues to worry about.
How do you reconcile all those competing interests? Does it boil down to one’s own priorities?
It’s a constant juggling act, and you’re right—each person has different priorities. In some cases you might make carbon emissions more important, or you might make supporting local goods more important. You might not be consistent all the time. Usually there is no easy answer.
Is there a point where you have to draw the line and stop thinking about ethics?
I would never want to say, “The heck with it. I’m just going to buy what makes me happy.” I don’t think that’s a good answer. I do resent a lot of the books out there that make it sound too easy. Sure, there will be times when you’ll have to put ethical values aside. But if two ethical values are contradictory, you don’t have to throw them both out the window. I’m not saying I have all the answers, what I’m really trying to do is to point out the questions.
Why is this an issue now?
The economy is still rough, and price is a major factor. So many of the “ethical” purchases are expensive, whether it’s organic or recycled, or buying from your local stationery store instead of Staples. And we have more information now. We have more choices. Ten years ago, you didn’t have so many imported organic thises and thats. And we’re certainly much more aware of things like carbon emissions. More awareness means more confusion.
What surprised you in writing this?
In the process of writing the book, I joined the local food co-op. I thought that would make life easy. It would make all the decisions for me, vet the products and put them on the shelves. But if the co-op didn’t exist, we’d have to go shopping somewhere. That means that a regular supermarket nearby would be hiring people to do these jobs. So by creating the co-op and donating our unpaid labor, we have kind of eliminated several hundred jobs that people are getting paid to do elsewhere. These aren’t the best jobs in the world, but they do tend to be union jobs, which means a certain level of wages and benefits. I certainly didn’t set out to cost 300 people their jobs. Even something that should be simple and clear-cut, such as joining a food co-op, is not.
How do you think this book will surprise readers?
I do think a lot of the complications that go along with these choices will surprise people. For instance, many readers have probably never had to weigh the comparative advantages of helping subsistence farmers overseas versus buying locally. Things like that.
Why should Barack Obama read this?
I do think he is a person who tries to live by his values. It seems to me that he might well face these dilemmas. Even if you have staffers who are buying your food and clothing, clearly they make their decisions as far as what food and clothing to buy. Hopefully it will open his eyes and help him.
“Ignorance is bliss.” Could that be the motto for this book?
I don’t think so. Ignorance is easy. But I don’t consider bliss not living ethically. I consider bliss being happy and knowing that you’ve done good.