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.