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26 February 2012

British hypocrisy #1: wasting paper/saving trees

One of the hardest things to teach Russians is when, in what way and to what extent it is polite to practise the black art of hypocritising—if I may call it that. The same is true in the other direction. Westerners in Moscow often find it difficult to know when they may and may not wear bright coloured clothes in the Metro or sing or crack jokes in public without causing offence to the person they are with. Both sides find many of the other group’s rules baffling. I came across a good example this morning.
     How many times have you seen a line at the end of an email saying somethign like: “Please consider the environment, and print this email only if absolutely necessary”? It can be bad form in those circles in the English-speaking world that feel they have the responsiblity for saving the planet to waste paper. Envelopes have to be re-used, and excessive packaging is frowned upon. Reducing paper consumption is essential if we are to halt the onward march of man-made climate change.
     On the BBC website this morning one of the lead stories was the launch of the Sunday Sun, the newspaper which is going to replace the News of the World after Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation had to close it following serious allegations of phone hacking and other offences against established news-gathering etiquette.
     “About three million copies are believed to have been printed,” the BBC said, “and the company hopes well over two million will be sold.”
     Those figures mean that, in order to maximise sales, the company is prepared to print up to a million copies more than might actually be sold. The first issue has 92 pages, which means that the waste paper being so casually mentioned is equivalent to 92 million emails (given that emails are about half the size but printed on one side only). The same will happen next week, and the week after, and the week after that. Obviously the company will, in time, get its print run down to a number closer to its actual sale, but there will always be many more printed than sold so as to make sure stocks do not run out anywhere they might be wanted. Nett nett, the waste of paper is, and will continue to be, colossal.
     And this happens on the other six days of the week with the daily Sun, which always prints more than it sells, as does the Guardian, the Times, the Daily Record and a hundred other papers throughout Britain. The same happens in America, and Australia, and Brazil and the whole world, including Russia. The idea of saving trees by re-using envelopes in the context of that level of waste is so silly it amounts to a form of self-deceiving hypocrisy. Yet the BBC makes no mention of this.
     I make no criticism. I merely remark that, from a Russian point of view, it is noticeable that most respectable Britons think it reasonable to be sniffy about wasting paper in private, on a small scale, where others can see what they are doing, and infer where their heart lies—“I’m saving the planet”—while ignoring ways in which the non-electronic media do exactly the opposite. Why re-use envelopes, why bother to save copying paper when a single one of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers is pulping the equivalent of 92 million emails a week?
     There is no logic to this, which is why the etiquette is so hard for outsiders to understand. Learning when to try to appear to be attempting to save the planet from alleged global warming, and when you may feel free to ignore the planet’s future is one of the key arts it is necessary to calibrating your perceived hypocrisy level in the interests of social acceptability.
     Though this is a broader issue than use of language, there are many ways in which this problem crops up in connection with the use of English. I will be covering them as I come across them in future posts. It is a minefield for the outsider who has not been brought up to understand the rules. Is it any wonder that so many Russians find this so hard to get right?

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