September 11, 2008

In which I probably annoy a lot of my readers

I consider myself an environmentalist. I'm in favour of spending large sums of money to maintain untouched wildernesses and biodiversity. I'm a fiscally conservative free-marketer, but I still believe clean air, clean water, and industrial pollution should be mandated and regulated. I think the evidence shows beyond any reasonable doubt that global warming is real, and increasing, and ultimately a very bad thing. (Though I have a lot of time for Bjorn Lomborg's argument that its costs are still outweighed by the benefits of a modern industrialized society; global warming is proven bad, but its alternatives, given current tech, are not proven better.) So why does so much of the modern environmental movement leave me cold and/or seething?

Commenting on my friend Rob's blog some time ago, I compared modern environmentalism to the Original Sin meme, slightly mutated. He replied, trenchantly:

Slightly mutated? Surely you jest, sir; I don’t see any mutation at all.

In the beginning, we lived [in ecological harmony / a sinless state]. This was perfect and ideal and humanity was at peace with our creator, [nature / God]. But then, we screwed up and [ushered in the Industrial Revolution / ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil], which put us into a state of [pollution / sin]. Our [lives / souls] are in constant jeopardy from this terrible mistake. The only way we will [survive / enter Heaven] is if we repent of our [polluting / sinful] ways and reach [ecological harmony / a state of grace] before the final, terrible, Judgment Day we so richly deserve.

I mean, really — where’s the “slight mutation”?

That's a lot of it - the attitude that anything human beings do is wrong and destructive and unnatural. This is of course actually by definition ridiculous - we too are part of our environment, and therefore everything we do is as 'natural' as the actions of termites or rabbits, by any reasonable definition of the word.

But there's another biblical attitude that irks me even more, which I call Pontius Pilate syndrome: "I wash my hands of this!" It's when you act as if the most important thing about a problem is not its solution but rather that you personally are not contributing to it.

I see it a lot in the people in the anti-sweatshop crowd, too; many, most if you ask me, are far less upset about the fact that the world is full of desperately poor people than by the prospect of wearing T-shirts made by such people. Often all they do for the unfortunates whose plight makes them so upset is to boycott such T-shirts, presumably on the grounds that the desperately poor in question will be much better off with no job at all. (To forestall angry comments: people who work in sweatshops do so because those are the best jobs they can get, because cheap labour is their only competitive advantage. Attempting to force the T-shirt companies to pay their labourers $X/hour results in the companies promptly switching to new places with better infrastructure where $X is the going rate, thus wiping out the jobs of the people you were trying to help, which I think we can all agree is a wee bit counterproductive.)

A lot of modern environmentalism works in the same not-on-my-watch! Pontius Pilate way. People buy locally grown organic food, or drive a Prius, or recycle religiously, or carry their own mugs to the coffee shop or shopping bags to the supermarket, or avoid air travel, in order to save the Earth. (Yes, I realize I just pissed off a considerable percentage of my readers. Sorry. But come on, people.) (And yes, I realize some of these examples are probably actually counterproductive.) These very same people furiously mock Dick Cheney's description of environmentalism as "a personal virtue", without realizing that he and they are sharing exactly the same mindset.

Sure, it's nice to do those things. I do some of them myself; pick up litter, turn off unused lights, etc. Yes, it's very personally responsible of you to reduce your environmental footprint.

But here's the thing. Whatever you personally do has absolutely no actual effect on the environment. There are six billion people in the world, and a billion in modern industrialized nations - and that doesn't count China, which, incidentally, now contributes more to global warming than the USA, and opens a new coal-fired power plant every week. (Don't even get me started on the freaking idiotic Kyoto Accord.) You could spend your whole life consuming and polluting like some hyperbolic Martin Amis character, and on a global level, it still wouldn't amount to more than a fraction of a fragment of a rounding error.

"But what if everyone felt that way?" you ask. I could give the snide Catch-22 answer - "well, then I'd be a damn fool to feel any other way, wouldn't I?" - but that's not true. Yes, of course, the social and cultural aggregate matters. Quite a lot, in fact. (Although bear in mind that the whole USA could go super-green and it still wouldn't matter much, with China and India so eager to pick up the polluting slack.) Thing is, once again, what you choose to do has zero effect on your society's aggregate activity. It is a tide that will sweep in or out regardless of where on the beach you stand.

It's the same thing as voting. People act as if it's really important that you personally vote. The truth, the logical, mathematical, unquestionable, utterly inescapable, and socially unacceptable truth, is that your individual vote makes No. Goddamn. Difference. OK, it's theoretically (though not statistically) possible that your vote might break a tie - but that doesn't apply to your consumption or pollution. Your personal environmental virtue or lack thereof is entirely, completely, and totally irrelevant to The Environment.

What pisses me off about the modern environmental movement is that so many people don't get this and spend most if not all of their environmental energy on this irrelevant crap so that they'll feel all righteously good that at least they're not contributing to the problem, oh no - when what they should be doing, of course, is spending that time and energy on things that might actually make a difference.

See, one way environmentalism is not like voting is that specific individuals can and do make a huge difference. Just not you. But those people who happen to be directors of major companies, or elected officials, can make a big difference. Innovators and inventors can make a huge difference. Consider this guy. Cement manufacturing generates 5% of global greenhouse-gas emissions (about the same as air travel) and while you're spending money on organically grown geothermally-powered birdhouses, he's working on a process to cut those emissions in half - and save manufacturers money, too.

Do yourself a favour? Do all of us a favour? Buy the birdhouse at Home Depot and throw that money towards him and his ilk instead, by investing in green-technology ventures. Join some Amnesty International-esque group that meets weekly to write environmental-themed letters to politicians. Pressure corporate directors to make their buildings and supply chains more ecologically efficient. If you care so much about the environment, here's a thought, do something that might actually matter. Because your personal virtue, however admirable it may be, will not.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree.. But why not do both?

10:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree.. But why not do both?

10:25 AM  

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