Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Crisis of Environmentalist Faith

A couple of sentences from Matthew Altman (from "The Green Onion") have been weighing on me for days:
Ironically, environmentalism itself can become a means of advancing our own selfish interests, as when we barely adjust our lifestyles in order to feel a disproportionately strong sense of smugness....If a well-intentioned environmentalism does nothing for nature, it only has ["morally bankrupt"] anthropocentric value:  its contribution to the environmentalist's sense of self-satisfaction.
Is the smugness the bigger problem here or the uselessness of the pursuit?  If I do all sorts to try to save the world, and still feel devastated because I recognize what little impact I have, I'm still doing precious little for nature, and then my acts don't even have anthropocentric value.  They got nothin'! My "Sisyphean" efforts do little to actually prevent global warming.  Shockingly, my letters and petitions aren't yet being acted on in parliament.

I know I have little effect on my own, but I hope that if people can see how easy it is to live without a car, A/C, and drier, or how easy it is to produce minimal waste, avoid plastics, get solar panels on the roof, or be vegetarian, AND how much money they can save in the process, then it could have an impact.  Is it okay if my acts potentially have an effect in the future - even if the potential is minuscule?

It feels better than doing nothing.  It's painful to watch the planet fall apart, and the little I do keeps me going.  I'm not going for self-satisfaction as much as I'm making an effort to avoid the guilt that would come with knowing I'm adding to the problem with frivolous use of fossil fuels.  And I never stop trying to do more than I'm already doing.

Okay, now I'm just struggling to rationalize to myself that it's okay to reduce energy and waste which, I'm pretty sure, is not what Altman was going for!

This Bentley has the highest GHG emissions in all the land!

If I buy a Bentley, an air conditioner, and a side of beef, it will have negligible effect on the world, and it might make my kids happy that finally I can drive them around town like a "normal mum," and I'll be contributing to the economy.  I won't be personally happier, though, because, although I know I'm having little impact - okay, none - it still feels good to do what I can.  So, aha, it really is all about feeling smug.  Shit.

In Altman's essay, he starts with praise for Peter Singer's claim that speciesism is a prejudice like racism that must be eradicated.  We have to care about animals the way we care about people (or, for some, the way we care about people currently in our in-group).  We should act to decrease suffering regardless the species.  He adds Richard Sylvan's theory that we "have direct duties to holistic entities" not just  sentient species - a biocentric theory.  And he applauds Ecofeminism for recognizing that we have a duty to withdraw from domination in general - obliterate the perspective of forests and people as resources for our use.  Then he concludes,
In this intellectual landscape, it is not enough for us to change our behavior slightly by buying "green" products and recycling.  Rather, we first need to transform our way of thinking about how we are related to nature....Once we adopt a new ethic, an environmental ethic, we will finally recognize our direct obligations to all living things.  
I'm confident I recognize this obligation, yet it doesn't really matter if there's only a few of us scattered around and scant political representation to help us actually change anything.  Why does this new attitude change anything?  It's hard enough to get the masses to change their behaviours; it might be a total lost cause to require an attitudinal change as well.  If we change attitudes, then behaviour will follow, but that's a long and tricky road.  We still can't eradicate racism, homophobia, or sexism - now they've got to learn to care about everything.  Fat chance.  Much easier and faster is to legislate a change in behaviours.  Unnecessary toxins in products could be banned, single-person car driving limited, A/C banned with the exception of hospitals and residences for the elderly and sickly, and factory farms made illegal under cruelty to animal legislation that already exists.  Then people wouldn't have a choice except to act environmentally.  BUT, with our current political climate, that's not bloody likely either.

I get that Altman's really bashing people who just buy "greener" crap instead of less crap and with an eye for getting a bit of social praise for their efforts instead of actually looking at the world differently.  They're trying to do something without it having any effect on the conveniences of their lives which is lazy and inauthentic.  But at least they recognize environmental work as useful enough to want to appear to be followers.  I'd rather have green-washed friends, neighbours, and colleagues than be surrounded by people who buy bigger and more, suggesting environmental efforts are all for naught - even if they might be right.  At work, I'm still seen by some as that eco-fanatic who doesn't like paper plates and cups, instead of a forward-thinking initiator who was able to convince everyone of the wisdom of reusing dish-ware instead of tossing disposables every day.  We've just got so, so far to go, it's breathtaking.  

I face a similar conundrum when I read this bit of the Tao Te Ching (ch.29 - Stephen Mitchell trans.):
Do you want to improve the world?
I don't think it can be done.
The world is sacred.
It can't be improved.
If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it....
The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.
But I like to fix thing!  I get a lot of pleasure from the upward struggle to make things right.  I love a challenge!  And I think it's just sheer dumb luck that what gives me pleasure happens to be something that could benefit the world.  Except that maybe it can't.

Here's the thing:  I think smugness is all we've got right now - a little self-praise that we're doing the right thing.  I do what I do in part for the internal reward of self-righteousness (I get no social kudos for any of it - people generally think I'm crazy), but also because of a blind faith that it might do some real good if it ever snowballs.  To clarify, I know if everyone lived like this it would dramatically help the human race survive on this planet - that's a scientific fact.  But the faith part comes in when I consider the leviathan task of getting everyone else to actually get with the program!

Or at the very least, living as we do, my family has slowly acclimatized to the heat and to walking everywhere, so when we start having black-outs and gas shortages, we'll be less-suddenly deprived than most people in our neck of the woods.  Perhaps environmentalists will survive because they're better adapted to living with less.

And then we'll be unbearably smug!

ETA Matthew Altman replied in an e-mail - about a year ago!  Here's his response:

I enjoyed your blog comments, which were very thoughtful. The big question is: If we don't try to be more environmentally friendly because we worry that it's useless, what's the alternative? Excessive consumption doesn't seem viable as a moral position, because that certainly won't help, and it's possible, however unlikely, that reducing our environmental impact may help. At a philosophy conference, I heard someone phrase it like this: we don't have to do what will bring about good consequences; rather, we have to choose that action that is most likely to bring about better consequences. I think this is what you're getting at in your response. Of course, in the piece of mine that you read, I was bound by the constraints of what was said in the Onion, which is not necessarily my position. My opinion on environmental ethics is more prominent in chapter two of my book, Kant and Applied Ethics. Anyway, thinks for pointing out your comments on my essay. It's good to see someone take seriously the ideas in it, even though they're couched in humor.

(Cross-posted at Project Earth)

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