Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Environmental Responsibility: How Much is Enough?

Mike's post from earlier today raises an issue that I've been thinking about for some time. Do Al Gore's choices to live in a large house and to travel extensively contradict his claims that reducing global warming is a "moral issue" and undermine his credibility as a spokesman for environmental causes? The right-wing press certainly thinks so. While channel-surfing earlier this month, I noticed that some talking heads on Fox News were criticizing Gore and his receipt of an Academy Award (R), with the words "Hollywood Hypocrites" emblazoned across the bottom of the screen.

Mike suggests a difference between "moral duties" and mere "policy matters" that is helpful for his exploration of the carbon offsets issue. To evaluate claims of hypocrisy, though, this difference is irrelevant. The question is whether one who advocates policies to mitigate environmental harms is a hypocrite if she continues to engage in activities that cause environmental harm. There is no satisfactory answer to that question, because this is one among many issues where even enlightened and committed people will not commit themselves to the most extreme action possible. Let's set aside the "Gore as Spokesman (and thus held to a higher standard)" angle and simply look at his actions as a consumer of energy. His house, we are told, consumes as much energy in a year as 20 Hummers. That's bad. Of course, he has enough money that he could build and heat an even bigger house and also own and drive many Hummers. Is he to be credited for being less wasteful than other very-high-income people or condemned for not doing more to reduce his energy consumption? Both. Let's not pretend, though, that he could ever satisfy everyone who might criticize him for not doing enough. If he stops flying, will he still own a car? If he owns an electric car, how dare he not remember that electricity is produced by burning coal or by splitting atoms! If he cares so much about the environment, after all, why doesn't he live in a cave?

This line of attack is a familiar one. On this blog, Sherry Colb has discussed how quickly meat-eaters attack vegetarians for any deviation from absolute purity. ("Oh, you think you're so morally superior!? Well, I see you have some leather trim on your shoes. So much for you!") Even vegans can be attacked for not setting aside everything else in their lives to devote themselves to saving animals. It's always possible to do more. Similarly, people like Warren Buffett who give large charitable contributions can plausibly be criticized (or their generosity diminished) by pointing out that they are still billionaires. Interestingly, if a person really did move into a cave, or spend her life saving animals, or give away every last penny of her wealth, she would be dismissed as a freak. Why should regular people listen to that nut, if she's willing to live in a cave and eat grubs?

Ultimately, when lines are impossible to draw, it comes down to good faith. Fox News shows no indication that it really wants Gore to be more environmentally responsible. They're just grabbing onto whatever convenient criticism they can. The rest of us can always aspire to do more -- for the poor, for the planet, for the animals, and for other good causes -- but we need not fall into the trap of setting an impossibly high bar. Gore should set his bar higher, but I'll take him over his critics any day.


A. said...

From Webster's: "one who pretends to be what he is not or to have principles or beliefs that he does not have; especially : one who falsely assumes an appearance of virtue or religion 'I dare swear he is no hypocrite, but prays from his heart'"
Being a hypocrite is slightly different from "ability to lead" on a given issue. And credibility as to prescriptive measures and as to how we ought to encourage and/or force people in society to behave should be distinct from one's own private practices. The instinct, of course, is to say, "why should "a" follow "b's" advice to do "x" when "b" is doing "'x," but social rules writ large in a large enough society have nothing to do with the private practices of one person before those rules are made. The "hypocrite" point may be a descriptive psychological point, but that seems to be as far as it goes.
Gore is certainly sincere in his beliefs about how society ought to change, and he doesn't seem to be pretending to be anything but a policy advocate. Did he pretend to be a minimalist in his private life? That big vacation farm in "Inconvenient Truth" didn't lead me to think he was anything of the sort.
Also, let's say you know in advance that someone is going to be piggish, wasteful, or otherwise immoral in any number of areas: we should still encourage that person to encourage others to avoid such bad behavior, and we should not take from this that it's GOOD to do those terrible things.
This is all simple beyond belief, as is the point that those media outlets that glibly dramatize Gore's personal shortcomings are doing us all a terrible disservice as long as the inference is: "ok, go back to your regular behavior, the guy with the good advice is a pig like the rest of us."

Unknown said...

I agree the line is hard to draw, but I'm skpetical that slope from jet-setting environmentalist to lichen-eating cave dweller is smooth all the way down. At some point, Gore (or the vegan) will have to choose between saving the planet (or its animal inhabitants) and something of similar moral significance (let's say the health an well-being of his children). While I don't doubt his most adamant critics will fault him either way, I'm less inclined to suppose that all stopping points are wholly arbitrary.

egarber said...

I've been thinking about this a little more. And I'm gonna go simple on you guys.

1. Gore's moral goal for the nation is to stabilize and reduce greenhouse gasses.

2. Gore on a personal level is net carbon neutral or better (or let's assume he is).

It therefore seems to me that he is meeting his moral imperative.

Now if he went on a crusade to shrink the size of the average house, and still chose to live in a large dwelling, we might have a case of direct hypocrisy. But he didn't -- he has an aggregate goal.

In other words, I see no reason to hold him accountable to a GRANULARIZED standard of behavior, when his public posture is about NET reductions.

Suppose I preached to people that it's critical to keep their weight down. Now, imagine that I eat pizza and drink beer at every meal. However, suppose that I also run 30 miles a week and keep my weight at 160.

Am I hypocritical because of my diet? Or would my diet be too granularized a benchmark?

Caleb said...

I think there's one problem with the simple version though - if Gore's goal is that we stabilize our carbon emissions, then he's living up to it. If it's that we reduce them (and perhaps that we reduce them drastically or as much as possible), then he's not.

In the diet example, you're fine if you stay at 160... But if you told people they should be at 100, and then stayed at 160, are you really living up to what you preach?

Tam Ho said...

Well put, Neil. I once told an ex girlfriend about how the government needs to fix the wealth inequality that leaves some living in conditions described in Savage Inequalities, while others make $100M/year. She challenged me by asking why, if I cared so much, wasn't I devoting my life to building homes for the poor.

egarber said...

To Caleb:

I see the point, but help me work through this.

As I understand it, the greenhouse gas goal is a gradual reduction in net emissions year to year, to the point where we limit them enough for the earth's carbon "pits" to absorb our current excess.

If that's the case, if everybody was close to carbon neutral (like Gore in my scenario), we would instantly achieve that goal, no? So being carbon neutral IS reduction, viewed in the issue's proper context.

I'm probably missing something, but I'll continue the analysis.

Suppose we're talking about the deficit. If the government were to stop borrowing today, it would basically be "debt-neutral", viewed in the frame of our carbon debate. At that point, it would be possible to service the remaining principle, making the overall drain much more manageable than a scenario where the borrowing went on and on. All the deficit plans out there focus on a reduction in the rate of borrowing -- i.e., a gradual move toward "neutrality".

I think it might be the same with the carbon issue.

So if I'm making any sense (please correct me where I stray), the proper interpretation of my weight analogy is this:

I might think it's important to reach 160, not as a starting point to then melt away to 100, but instead as a healthy weight for my body to more efficiently self-regulate.

[BTW, has anybody here run the NY Marathon? I did the Atlanta -- nasty hills -- a few years ago and might try another one.]

Caleb said...

On that interpretation of Gore's claim, I think you're completely right, and he's living up to it if he's carbon neutral.

There still might be a difference between the weight analogy and the environment, however. Suppose that by working out, I could reduce OTHER people's weight. If I really believe that the obesity epidemic must be stopped, and that it must be done quickly, am I still justified in just maintaining my own weight, instead of working to reduce it?

Unknown said...

So Gore discharges his moral obligation not to harm the environment by doing the minimum that would be necessary to prevent further harm to it if everyone else did the same, despite the fact that most people do not do the same? If everyone gave just 5 dollars to prevent world hunger, that might be just enough to do the trick. Does that mean Gore would be morally justified in giving only 5 dollars in a world in which most people give nothing? Would he be doing somethijng supererogatory if he gave an additional 10? I admit we could draw the line here, but it strikes me as highly self-serving to say the least.

David S. Cohen said...

The old cliche says it best: "The perfect is the enemy of the good."

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