Carborexia is not a word. Any string
that garners only six hits on Google is not a word.
But the string appears in the New York Times, so maybe it will be a
word soon. Perhaps even by the time you read this.
Carborexia is a cute play in the neologism game.
It refers to a
condition in which a person strives ardently to reduce his or her
carbon footprint, much as a person with anorexia strives to reduce her
or his body mass.
Unplugged, Fully Green
By JOANNE KAUFMAN
Published: October 17, 2008
SIMON WOODS, who is 6, would like to play on a
baseball team. His mother, Sharon Astyk, is sympathetic, but is also
heavily committed to shrinking her family’s carbon footprint.
“We haven’t been able to find a league that
doesn’t involve a long drive,” she said.
“I say that it isn’t good for the planet, so we
play catch in the yard.”
That is one way that Ms. Astyk, a mother of four, expresses her concern
for the environment. She has unplugged the family refrigerator, using
it as an icebox during warmer months by putting in frozen jugs of water
as the coolant (in colder weather, she stores milk and butter
outdoors). Her farmhouse in Knox, N.Y., has a homemade composting
toilet and gets its heat from a wood stove; the average indoor winter
temperature is 52 degrees.
Sharon Astyk is a writer of books [Depletion
and Abundance, and A Nation of Farmers (in
press)], and more importantly, a blogger.
She was not pleased by the treatment she received in the NYT.
This is something she explains on her blog, Casaubon’s
was a Whore for the Mainstream Media
October 19th, 2008
…I was nervous, but now that the worst has happened – the article
appears in a completely decontextualized article about crazy people,
complete with quotes from therapists.
Good things about the Times piece:
There’s a cute picture
of my husband scything.
Bad things about the Times piece:
Everything else, particularly that at no point did the writer
mention the Riot for Austerity and the thousand other people around the
world who are trying desperately to reduce their carbon impact in a
world where increasingly few people seem to care…
I happen to be interested in the adaptations that people are
making to prepare for the worsening of the simultaneous economic and
environmental crises that we happen to be experiencing.
That’s why I pay attention to Sharon Astyk. But the
newspaper article is not about that.
It could have been about that, and should have been, and might actually
have been useful if it had been. But no, the author had to
pursue, with journalistic obsessiveness, the senseless doctrine of
always presenting two sides to every issue. Even if the other
side has absolutely no merit.
So in the article, one side is the side that Astyk and others are
taking: the side that is trying to prepare for hard times, trying to
keep things from getting even harder. Conveniently, as it
happens, it is possible to simultaneously optimize one’s environmental
impact, and optimize one’s preparedness for economic crisis.
Both goals are met by striving for sustainability.
That, in itself, would be worthy of an article in a major newspaper.
But no, there has to be another side somewhere, doesn’t
If there is no other side, then according to the reporter’s creed,
another side must be fabricated. Apparently, the author could
not find anyone who is willing to be quoted as saying that
sustainability is bad. So she found some quotes from some
mental health professionals that could be used to imply that, perhaps,
the striving for sustainability might be a sign of psychological
So that is the angle that got me interested. As someone who
cares about the phenomenology of mental illness, I often am amused by
the linguistic contortions that people use to try to shoehorn things
they don’t like into a diagnostic box.
Some persons seem to think that slapping a diagnostic label on
something will somehow confer some sort of negative value judgment.
It’s a ridiculous notion, but that does not make people stop
From the NYT article, here are the offending passages:
…Some people may view Ms. Astyk and her family as
role models, pioneers who will lead us to a cleaner earth.
Others may see them as colorful eccentrics, people with admirable
intentions who have arrived at a way of life close to zealotry. To
others they come across as “energy anorexics,”
obsessing over personal carbon emissions to an unhealthy degree, the
way crash dieters watch the bathroom scale.
…To some mental health professionals, the compulsion to live green in
the extreme can suggest a kind of disorder.
“If you can’t have something in your house that
isn’t green or organic, if you can’t eat at a
relative’s house because they don’t serve organic
food, if you’re criticizing friends because they’re
not living up to your standards of green, that’s a
problem,” said Elizabeth Carll, a psychologist in Huntington,
N.Y., who specializes in anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Certainly there is no recognized syndrome in mental health related to
the compulsion toward living a green life. But Dr. Jack Hirschowitz, a
psychiatrist in private practice in Manhattan and a professor at the
Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said that certain carborexic behaviors
might raise a red flag.
“The critical factor in determining whether something has
reached the level of a disorder is if dysfunction is
involved,” he said. “Is it getting in the way of
your ability to do a good job at work? Is it taking precedence over
everything else in your relationships?”
There are two facts that are pertinent here. First, every
single symptom that is listed in the Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is something that
could occur in anyone. No single symptom is, by itself,
diagnostic of anything. Second, any behavior, even if
perfectly normal for most people, can become pathological if taken to
an extreme, or if undertaken at inappropriate times. This is
true of behaviors undertaken in the service of sustainability, because
it is true of all behaviors, period.
So the author found two therapists who were willing to say that Ms.
Astyk’s behaviors could, in some circumstances, conceivably, be
indications of mental illness.
It probably was not hard to find those therapists. After all,
any therapist with a modicum of training could say
that about any behavior. We know this is
true, because it is always true.
Unfortunately, is is not particularly interesting,
informative, or meaningful.