Monday, August 07, 2006

Sustainable Living: The Predicament of the Environmental Movement

In response to my post belittling the idea of sustainable living from the point of view of one man who lives off the grid of modern life, Xtra, true to form, remarked that "The clearest way towards sustainable living is for all of us to pull our lips over our heads and swallow." Indeed, the quickest way to save the planet and stop global warming would be for everyone to kill themselves - but this of course would defeat the purpose, which is above all to live on earth, and to live here in a way that does not make the world increasingly polluted and uninhabitable for present and future generations. As A Green Cowboy, true to form, insisted, the best way forward is for everyone to do whatever they can, however minor, to live a more sustainable lifestyle. In principle, again, this sounds good. But it tends to fail in practice, or to fail to inspire practices consistent with the principles.

Let me explain. Rarely do I find myself, as I do today, agreeing with John Tierney's op-ed, in which he writes that "environmentalist preachers like Gore [should be held] to higher standards." Those who preach the need to live in an environmentally sustainable way lose their authority, their ability to influence the actions of others, when their own actions so obviously fail to embody their own values. As Tierney writes, while Gore's movie offers fine advice about cutting back on traveling and doing so in energy-efficient ways, "it would be even better if he journeyed to his lectures exclusively on Greyhound. But he seems to prefer cars and planes. When you tally up his international travel to inspect melting glaciers and the domestic trips between his homes—one in Washington and another in Nashville, not to mention the family farm in rural Tennessee featured in the movie—you're looking at a Godzilla-sized carbon footprint." Further, Tierney states that if Gore really wanted to save energy, he would also sell his second (third? fourth?) home. "If you're going to own a second home while ordering everyone else to carpool," Tierney writes, "you must atone for your excesses, and it's not enough just to offset the carbon."

One could object that Tierney could multiply such examples forever, until the absurd conclusion is reached that we must live like this guy, or just kill ourselves, in order to live in the name of a better society and environment. But this objection misses Tierney's point. The point is that the principles behind the idea of reducing carbon emissions or what have you are in practice ineffective, or at the very least need to be thought-out in greater detail. In other words, the principle of energy-efficiency currently functions no differently than the concept of recycling, which allows people to claim that they are being responsible consumers - and to hiss at people who do not recycle - while they are consuming more and more. Likewise, the idea of, say, public transportation allows people to claim that they are helping the environment while at the same time they are contributing to its pollution by riding the bus. Such things are falsely called a step in the right direction. Instead, the right direction consists in an absolute reduction of waste and an absolute reduction in carbon emissions. As far as the environment is concerned, anything less is still relatively more. That is to say, what counts as a relative reduction in pollution on the part of humans, still counts as an absolute increase in the pollution of the environment. This is the predicament of the environmental movement.


xtrachromosomeconservative said...

As I have advocated here in the past, I believe we should have a gas or carbon tax. If you want less of something then tax it. That said, an emissions trading regime or a gas tax is essentially going to "offshore" the pollution. If we don't produce a widget, we will purchase said widget from China who produces the widget while doing more damage to the environment. Anything that makes energy more expensive domestically will accelerate this process.

I don't want to be the un-environmentally-fun person in the group, but environmentalism is a middle class value. As developing countries such as BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) develop and prosper, it is more likely that they too will have a greater sense of environmentalism. Until then, I think the best we can hope for is that a gas tax will make non-carbon based energy platforms more marketable and ultimately these energy forms (nuclear probably) will become significantly more efficient.

A Green Cowboy said...

I hope to read this again in more depth later today, but an initial thought - Ilya, I was with many of the points you made, but one thing jumped out at me: the examples of recycling allowing people to consume more, and public transportation increasing the absolute levels of pollution.

Perhaps I am out of touch with the rest of society - but do people really use recycling as a justification for increasing consumption (consciously or not)? Do people really think "well, I wasn't going to buy that, but I can recycle the packaging, so I will..." I would have painted recycling as a minor aspect of consumption, that mainly comes into play in product choice (which brand I buy depends on how easily I can recycle the container) and disposal efforts (do I make the effort to sort my trash), and has little/no effect on overall consumption rate.

And I don't see how public transportation increases absolute pollution. Divide the pollution of one bus by its morning riders, how much pollution per person? Now, how much pollution per person if each of those people drove a sedan, pickup, or SUV?

Maybe we are talking about different statistics - the rate of growth versus actual growth. Isn't reducing the rate of growth worthy?

Again, it seems to me you are using an all-or-nothing approach. Either you stop using fossil fuels completely, or everything you do still contributes to the problem...the logical conclusion seems to be, don't even bother trying?

I see the larger problem - that so-called environmentally-friendly practices cannot solve the problem on their own, thus if society only makes token gestures and only employs some of these practices, it ends up being a lot of back-patting over little actual accomplishment. But I disagree with the degree of severity you give to this larger problem.

Ilya said...

Green, yes, I would uphold the claim that reduction in the rate of growth of pollution is a worthy pursuit. I'm just not sure what that actually amounts to. Where does that get you? On an individual level, you put the logic before us in the bus example. If bus riders were to each drive individually to work, together they would use much more fuel than by riding the bus together. So relative to driving, riding the bus is better. But this logic is only compelling if we hold the use of cars as the objective norm by which we can measure pollution levels. But why is that the norm? Why isn't biking the norm? If we stick with cars, what type of car is going to be the standard for evaluation? To someone who does not own a car or use a bus, your example will not be persuasive.

I was trying to point out that this reasoning can be used to justify anything. For example, one could say that rather than buying a Hummer, I bought a Geo, and therefore I'm being wise about my energy use. To every such claim, someone can say, by what right can you claim to be reducing energy use? You could have bought a more efficient car, or a bike instead. This debate doesn't go anywhere becuase the owner of the Geo says that she must have a car. Or the owner of a second home or second car can say the same thing: I want or need this, and besides, I could have done X, Y, or Z, which would have been totally worse for the environemnt. So congratulate me for being so respectful of my environmental footprint.

I'm sure there is a good philosophical way to explain this type of groundless reasoning. That's the thing, it's entirely subjective; it is not based on an objective standpoint or regulative norm. Cars often stand in as a convenient norm, but there is little justification for this, especially for all those people who find the use of a car objectively unnecessary.

Anonymous said...

With all this talk about killing everyone off, I got interested with this post. I was wondering (since we were talking about kill people off) at what point does the environmental issue blur with an overpopulation issue? Should we start mandating a zero population growth with new parents?

A Green Cowboy said...

Ilya ~

"Why isn't biking the norm?" Because most people don't bike, they drive. It would be great if there was a chance to realistically employ the standards of a truly sustainable, zero-emission lifestyle, but it doesn't seem practical right now.

The lack of a truly worthy, absolute standard doesn't mean that reasonable standards can't be applied.

That sounds slippery - who defines reasonable? - but it can work, and seems the most practical option at the moment.

Example - mileage standards. Most people agree that 13 mpg sucks. 40 mpg is great. Are you still polluting at 40 mpg? Hell yes. But it's a step...with more thought, maybe I could be convinced that we need to force society from point A to point D; but as of right now, I still think we can only get there by going through B and C.

A Green Cowboy said...

Anonymous ~

See my new post.