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.