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Date: 2024-05-23 Page is: DBtxt003.php txt00016462

Climate Change
More talk ... and then more talk

In defense of eco-hypocrisy

Peter Burgess You Founder/CEO at developing True Value Impact Accounting Thanks for the posting. I have been trying to move the conversation from sustainability to unsustainability. Those of us who live in 'rich' countries are catastrophically unsustainable. Maybe the planet can sustain a billion rich people, but for 8 billion as many as 8 planets would be required. Yes ... fossil fuel based energy has give rich countries an increasingly comfortable lifestyle since the beginning of the industrial revolution, but that is unsustainable as a business model for everyone. The good news is that modern technology has the potential to harness abundant natural energy and make big oil companies as relevant as buggy whip manufacturers!
Peter Burgess
Noteworthy - The Journal Blog

In defense of eco-hypocrisy

Photo credit: Michael CC-by-NC 2.0

I have this recurring fear.

In the not too distant future, the world is on the brink of a catastrophe.

Seas are rising. Species dying. Ecosystems disappearing. And civilization is strained to breaking point.

Nestled amidst the wreckage is a small group of hippies — many of them my friends — hiding away in an off-grid yurt.

A crackly voice comes in over the hand-crank, solar radio telling them that all is finally and irrevocably lost.

“It’s not our fault”, says one, patting their friend gently and reassuringly on the back.

“True…” nods another.

“It wasn’t us who did it.”


Whether it’s peeing in my compost heap, taking ill-advised electric road trips or experimenting with solar hot water, I’ve spent half my life exploring and writing about green lifestyle choices. I believe sincerely that there is much value in living a little lighter on the planet.

I’m just not sure how much we should talk about it.

On 8th of October, 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report which found we had just twelve years to cut global emissions nearly in half, or else the goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees would likely slip out of our grasp.

These findings spurred fresh interrogation in green circles of the idea that appeals to “personal responsibility” could ever possibly scale to meet such a challenge within the timeframe we have available:

“Stop obsessing with how personally green you live — and start taking on corporate power”, urged Martin Lucaks in The Guardian. Meanwhile, Mary Annaise Heglar over at Vox was even more blunt:

“The dominant narrative around climate change tells us that it’s our fault. We left the lights on too long, didn’t close the refrigerator door, and didn’t recycle our paper. I’m here to tell you that is bullshit.”

At its most basic level, the argument is hard to refute.

For decades — spurred on by campaigns that ask us to “think global, act local” — being an environmentalist was pushed as a synonym for being a “good steward” of the environment. And powerful commercial interests were only too happy to promote this narrative:

“Please reuse”, begged the supermarkets as they handed out plastic bags.

“Call us for a free low energy lightbulb”, urged the utility as it lobbied for unsafe disposal of its coal ash.

Even the very notion of “personal carbon footprinting” — meaning an effort to accurately quantify the emissions we create when we drive our cars or power our homes — was first popularized by nonother than oil giant BP, who launched one of the first personal carbon footprint calculators as part of their “Beyond Petroleum” rebranding effort in the mid-2000s. Not too long after that, this happened:

Photo credit: Deepwater Horizon Response CC BY-ND 2.0

Contrary to popular belief, fossil fuel companies are actually all too happy to talk about the environment. They just want to keep the conversation around individual responsibility, not systemic change or corporate culpability.

Sadly, these efforts at distraction have been wildly effective.

Ask your average citizen what they can do to stop global warming, and they will say “go vegetarian”, or “turn off the lights”, long before they talk about lobbying their elected officials. And this framing has been used as an extremely effective cudgel against those speaking out.

Perhaps nobody embodies this more than former Vice President Al Gore, whose Inconvenient Truth documentary catapulted the climate crisis back into the US political discourse. Rather than grapple with the complex, often terrifying facts presented in the film, critics were quick to change the subject.

A report — released simultaneously with the documentary, and authored by a “free market” think tank — claimed that Mr. Gore’s house used 20 times more energy than the average American home. And while Gore’s spokespeople responded with statistics about his energy efficient retrofits, the damage was already done:

“Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth: a $30,000 Energy Bill”cried one particularly snarky headline,from Jake Tapper for ABC News.

More recently, Green New Deal advocate and freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has faced similar attacks, based on her apparent shocking use of cars. This time, however, there are promising signs that the lessons of past battles have been learned. Rather than defend herself with receipts for carbon offsets, AOC rightly and forcefully steered the conversation back to the only scale that truly matters:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ‏ Verified account @AOC Following Following @AOC More Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Retweeted New York Post I also fly ✈️ & use A/C

Living in the world as it is isn’t an argument against working towards a better future. The Green New Deal is about putting a LOT of people to work in developing new technologies, building new infrastructure, and getting us to 100% renewable energy.Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez added,

New York Post Verified account @nypost Gas-guzzling car rides expose AOC's hypocrisy amid Green New Deal pledge 8:41 PM - 2 Mar 2019 31,934 Retweets 194,945 Likes Micheal HauckRobert DantonaVeronica Arcila🥑🦔Jordan Christine🦔🥑popcornboiiyna dranYpres ValarinDavid KnightIrene Music 12,347 replies 31,934 retweets 194,945 likes Reply 12K Retweet 32K Like 195K Direct message

Still, the purity tests persist. And while some come from our opponents, many of them are actually coming from inside the movement too.

George Monbiot, a British environmentalist and journalist, has written beautifully about climate change for years. While much of his focus has been on the structural underpinnings of the problem, Monbiot is also not above directing his fire at the environmentally aware. Society’s addiction to cheap flights is a regular target for his ire:

“If we want to stop the planet from cooking, we will simply have to stop traveling at the kind of speeds that planes permit. This is now broadly understood by almost everyone I meet. But it has had no impact whatever on their behavior. When I challenge my friends about their planned weekend in Rome or their holiday in Florida, they respond with a strange, distant smile and avert their eyes. […] The moral dissonance is deafening.”

For those of us who believe that personal lifestyle change has largely been used as a distraction, it’s tempting to argue that Monbiot’s dinner party conversations are not just awkward or ineffective — they are actively counterproductive. If we’re going to grow a movement that can challenge our fossil fuel dependent economic order, we’re going to need as many people as possible on board—pushing folks away because they participate in that economic order is going to leave us with a pretty small pool of recruits.

And yet, given the magnitude of climate change, the ethical underpinnings of Monbiot’s thesis do also resonate:

How, given the millions of lives that could be saved by limiting emissions, can we possibly justify taking cheap flights for a weekend away? How can we still be eating beef, when there are plenty of alternatives available? Shouldn’t each of us be doing all we can — at the ballot box, but also at the grocery store — to limit our personal impact and maximize our collective political influence?

In other words, can’t we walk and chew organic gum too?

This dilemma has been debated in green circles for years. And it’s occasionally kept me up at night as I ponder whether I’m really doing enough for my kids’ future.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that the question itself is a distraction. It’s not whether or not we take personal actions to limit our emissions that matters. It’s how we identify, talk about, and leverage those actions for their widest possible potential impact.

Consider this:

Even the most vocal proponent of personal lifestyle change is not doing all they can. Conversely, even the most adamant adherent of the “systemic change is all that matters” argument is, most likely, still taking steps to limit their footprint. In other words, most of us are doing something, and none of us are doing enough. And that’s perfectly OK.

The goal is not — as Big Oil would gladly have us believe — to “save the world” one bike ride, or one veggie burger, at a time. But rather, it is to use personal lifestyle change as a lever to push for broader, society-wide change. Mike Berners-Lee, in his latest book There Is No Planet B, puts the challenge like this:

“We need to think beyond the immediate and direct effect of our actions and ask more about the ripples they send out…”

To some, this might seem like a distinction without a difference. Yet shifting how we think about personal lifestyle choices changes which actions we prioritize.

Sometimes, that difference is profound.

If the aim, for example, is to live as low a carbon life as possible, one might make the decision to keep an old car on the road and use it as little as possible. If the aim, however, is to contribute to the fastest possible transition to zero carbon transport, then the first-best option is going to be to give up driving entirely. The second-best option is to buy an electric car.

Understanding the broader societal influence of what we do can also help us to overcome the feelings of powerlessness that are so common among the environmentally aware.

When we ride our bikes, our power lies not in cutting our personal travel footprint — an impact that seems trivial when surrounded by gigantic, diesel-chugging trucks. Instead, it’s in creating a space where politicians and planners feel confident investing in bike-friendly infrastructure and policies. Just visit Copenhagen or Amsterdam and compare their streets today to car-clogged photos from the Sixties.

Cyclists did that.

And they did it through a savvy mix of activism, advocacy and voting with their feet/pedals.

Similarly, when we eat less meat, we’re not just cutting the carbon on our plates — we’re shifting where the food industry will invest its resources. Indeed, having watched the growing interest in vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian dining, Tyson Foods recently invested in plant-based protein purveyor Beyond Meat. And other big meat brands are making similar moves.

Writing over at Slate, Leor Hackel and Gregg Sparkman argue that it’s not just about sending signals out into the world. The influence of our actions travels inward, too:

Just as sacrifice convinces others that climate action is important, it convinces us of our own commitment; we start to see ourselves as climate advocates. Eating less meat creates a gateway to workplace advocacy — like encouraging digital meetings or lobbying for solar panels — which opens a door to signing petitions or protesting.

Environmental activism and personal lifestyle change are not an either/or choice. Rather, they are distinct but related levers that are both at our disposal. The trick is not in picking one over the other, but in accepting what they do and don’t do — and stopping worrying about trying to do all of them all of the time.

Central to perfecting this trick is also understanding that while every positive action we take for ourselves is valuable, there are real opportunity costs involved when we push for those actions in others — costs that can limit our ability to build the kind of movement we need. This tradeoff was hinted at by climate scientist (and non-meat eater) Michael E. Mann, when discussing the role of veganism:

Yes, there’s an element of eco-hypocrisy in making peace with our own imperfections. But look around — eco-hypocrisy is everywhere. Vegans are pointing the finger at meat eaters even as they book their next flight; meat eaters are urging people to never fly again, even as they tuck into a juicy beef burger; and bike advocates and Tesla fanboys are forever having a spat somewhere on Twitter. It might be time to stop fighting with each other because we’re making unsustainable choices in a system where true sustainability is impossibly hard, and instead start grappling with the structural and systemic influences that put us in that position in the first place.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whose “fault” global climate change is. It matters that we fix it. And that’s going to take all of us.

So go ahead, ride your bike and eat your veggie burger. Change your light bulbs and insulate your home. And sure, teleconference into that next academic conference to set a good example too. But then, take a breathe, and embrace your eco-hypocrite. Stop worrying about where you— or your dinner guests — fall short, and start figuring out where your greatest point of leverage lies.

Oh, and please don’t forget to vote.
Sami Grover Medium member since Mar 2019 Climate nerd, environmental writer, eco-hypocrite. Brand Development Mngr at The Redwoods Group & co-owner of The Change Creation. Loves compost. Needs sleep.
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