Saturday, January 14, 2017

Eco-Hypocrites: Flights of the Anti-Flyers

I was just contemplating my own hypocrisy when I came across this NYTimes Op Ed on hypocrisy. Likely I'm not the only one in this position of explaining away, or coming to terms with, behaviour very contrary to my ethics. I've written before that nobody should board an aircraft for a luxury trip, and then I took my family to Costa Rica over the break.

The Op Ed discussed a study that shows why hypocrisy is so irritating:
"We contend that the reason people dislike hypocrites is that their outspoken moralizing falsely signals their own virtue. People object, in other words, to the misleading implication.... the principal offense of a hypocrite is not that he violates his own principles, but rather that his use of moral proclamations falsely implies that he himself behaves morally."
At a recent Christmas party when people spoke of the many trips about to be travelled, I asked, "How do you justify the trip to yourself knowing the damage it has on the environment?" Now, before you look at me sideways, I meant is as a legitimate question regardless how inconsiderately I likely worded it. It's something I'm struggling with, and I really want to know what others do. Is it denial? or rationalization? or apathy? How do we all act in ways counter to our own long term survival? But, of course, it's taken as a judgment. The main reaction was "You're going on a trip, so now you can't talk!"

This is only correct in part. It's correct in terms of offering a judgment of others, which is what the authors of the Op Ed are getting at. We can't rightly say to someone, "You're a bad person for wearing shoes in the house," while we currently have our shoes on in the house. That's a problem. But I'm not claiming that people are bad, but that certain actions are a problem that have to be dramatically reduced. It's similar to the reaction (often gleeful) some people have when a grammar teacher makes a grammar error. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't promote good grammar despite our own fallibility.

My rebuttal to the comment was, "Sure I can!" because we all need to stop travelling for leisure. Including me. I feel horribly guilty for taking a trip, and I really want to know how others manage those feelings when they're making travel arrangements.

There's another view out there that people are upset by claims of moral action because it forces them to reassess their own actions comparatively, and they're angry when they think they fall short of appropriate or admirable behaviour. That's actually pretty much the same thing, but it has a difference feel to it. It puts the problem in the hands of the audience's reaction to factual statements like, "I don't own a car, or I'm vegan." They feel their conception of themselves as moral human beings threatened. The authors of this view recognize that it's often an unintended implication that's read into the statement of concern. It's not the speaker behaving falsely, as the speaker can be well aware of their own flaws, but the audience who assumes it's bragging rather than concern.

The Op Ed author suggest that admitting wrong-doing helps. I do this already when I talk about the morality of eating animals because I've personally focused on reduction rather than strict restriction. But I intend to remember to do this in all cases:
"To further test our theory, we asked people to judge “non-signaling” hypocrites: those who hypocritically condemn behaviors they engage in, but who explicitly avoid implying anything virtuous about their personal behavior — by saying, for instance, “I think it’s morally wrong to waste energy, but I sometimes do it anyway.” We found that people judged these non-signaling hypocrites much more positively than they judged traditional hypocrites. In fact, they let these non-signaling hypocrites entirely off the hook, rating them as no worse than those who engaged in the same bad behavior but did not condemn others for it."
But I'm not going to stop talking about doing everything we can possibly do to slow down climate change. As Mill said,
Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be for ever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties, and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish objects and contemplation. 
We think we have a right to everything we want to have or see or be, and that doesn't just damage our planet, but, I'd argue, it does a number on our ability to ever be content.

How DO People Cope with the Guilt, and Why Did I Finally Break?

I fell deep into rationalizations.

I first agreed to my daughter's request for a trip because I was terrified of getting surgery, and I thought an upcoming trip would help distract me (because flying is more scary for me than being cut open!). I was right. It was a useful distraction in the weeks leading up to my operation. None of the things I worried about actually happened on the trip, but there was a volcano that grounded all planes for the two days before we were scheduled to leave. I didn't even know to worry about that.

But once that came and went, then it became a promise to my children (which shows a lack of the skill of measurement, going for a short term gain that provokes a long term loss). Somehow it seemed better that it was for them and that I wouldn't actually enjoy it. I hate travelling and hot climates. I don't really understand standing in line after line in a crowded airport in order to go to a place with the temperature of a Canadian heat wave, something I typically barely tolerate, in order to have fun or relax constantly surrounded by people without the hope of time alone for eight solid days. I'm really good at having fun and relaxing in my own home all by myself!

And I convinced myself it's okay because I do it so much less than many (but way more than far more others, so that falls apart too). It's the same way I rationalize eating turkey at Christmas. It does help to do it less, to consider it a rare treat, but it helps more not to do it at all.

And I figured it might be okay because we booked an eco-lodge. The place was lovely, and I asked a ton of questions about how they operate it. They considered going off-grid, but decided it wouldn't make sense to since Costa Rica runs on 100% renewable energy. They catch rain water and dry laundry (they did all our laundry) with the sun in a greenhouse-type set-up, collect sewage in a biodigester, and compost all food waste. All the food was local, the water was solar heated, and they cooled the room with fans and thick curtains rather than A/C.


BUT, it was all-inclusive with meals already prepared for us as we arrived at each meal. I told them ahead of the trip that we had no allergies or aversions and didn't claim vegetarian status because I wanted to eat how they eat, but, really, they fed us how typical tourists might want to eat. It was a ton of food and lots and lots of meat. After a couple days, my kids ignored desert and asked instead for a plate of raw vegetables. The owners of the resort laughed at our unusual request - and at how excited we all got at some broccoli at the side of our plates one night. I hate seeing food go to waste, so I finished my plate and then went to work on the kids' leftovers. Despite hiking through the jungle every day, I managed to gain weight. It was delicious, but we could have managed on portions half the size. Resorts are all about luxury and an expectation of gluttony seems to go along with that.

My modified swim wear.
And the trip became a trial run for wearing tank tops and a bikini on the beach surrounded by total strangers a mere six weeks after a double mastectomy. It was far too hot to be discrete and cover up any more than the bare minimum. As soon as we got to our room, we'd all strip down to our skivvies. The heat forced me to come to terms with my new body shape, and swimming in the ocean helped my arm mobility.

Most striking to me, was the social rewards mounted on people who travel. I was congratulated for planning a trip and taking it. People wanted to hear all about the plans and the results. It's hard to avoid such a normalized behaviour or consider it a luxury when, in some circles, it's presented as a necessity.

But none of this erases the fact that jet fuel creates as many GHGs in two hours per person on the flight as a typical person creates in a year.

A Better Way to Relieve Guilt

The best way to ease guilt is to do something about it: in this case to buy carbon offsets. The David Suzuki organization has a step-by-step guide explaining the rationale behind purchasing the highest quality offsets, but it still takes significant effort to find a good company for investment. Many airlines have offset calculators with preselected companies (which might use a closer look) or suggested companies. Those two calculators gave very different amounts for the identical destinations: $60 for Air Canada and $20 for Delta. But really, that's a drop in the bucket for the cost of the trip. And it doesn't entirely alleviate my guilt. It's still morally wrong to take more that you need in a way that deprives others in future.

Instead of using the calculators to try to find some kind of accurate amount, I went old school - back to my churchly days of tithing. Sending ten percent of the price of the flight to an environmental organization that preserves forests or created renewable energy or opposes fossil fuel pipelines might be a good practice to begin implementing: a personally imposed carbon tax on harmful practices. It's a small price to pay for some semblance of peace of mind for those who can afford the luxury of a destination vacation.

ETA - And here's a video my son made of the trip:


The Mound of Sound said...

I think maybe this year you get a pass, Marie. I have a certain advantage on this travel business. Some time ago I took out a shoe box of the rather poor photos I took during the 60s and 70s when I traveled like a bandit. For some of them I was able to employ Google Earth/Street to examine what those places look like today, half a century later. That helped me convince myself that I would only be disappointed if I wound up replacing modern memories for the really good memories of the past. The global population has doubled since my travel days and it's left pretty much everywhere the worse for wear. I'll give you an example. Stonehenge. Living in London at the time, I hopped aboard my bike and blasted my way to Stonehenge to reach it before dawn the first day after the Equinox. There were no crowds, the Druids had taken their leave. Just me and the caretaker and I had my personal tour guide to walk me through the place, show me around and - voila - catch the first rays of the rising sun pretty much as they would have appeared the day before. Today Stonehenge is surrounded by a ring walkway and the unwashed aren't allowed to get near it. Standing there that morning, with just one other person on site, was quite stirring. That's a thing of the past.

The same thing with Spain. I worked as a bartender at a pub in Benidorm when it was still much as it had been as a fishing port. Today it's wall to wall highrise buildings along the beach. What was once is no more. Would I go back? Of course not.

Even the grottiest bar in London, Dirty Dick's at Bishop's Gate, is now sanitized and gentrified. My daughter sent me a photo of it when she worked there and, damn, I almost wept.

No, I'm done. I saw it when it was worth seeing. Best to leave those memories unsullied.

Marie Snyder said...

It's a shame that so many special areas have lost their lustre over the years. The reserve we hiked through was pretty well preserved, but there were many people on the very few paths open to the public. The diversity of plants and animals was certainly remarkable. I still prefer to go just a little to the north for some solitude and the splendour of nature.

Lorne said...

As usual, Marie, your post challenges me, as I am sure many others. We just got back from our annual hegira to Cuba, and while there, I was thinking of the very issues you address here.

I came to the conclusion that there is no good answer, and that all I can do is what I can do, however modest those efforts may ultimately be. I could describe things in my daily life that I do to try to mitigate my footprint, but that is largely because I am retired and have the luxury of reflection and selection. I know most people do not have that luxury, and so no special virtue can be attributed to me.

And the situation is never simple. We went to Costa Rica twice; the first visit was by far the richest, and we experienced not only its natural beauty and wildlife, but also an organic farm based on environmental and organic principles. What I learned there gave me increased understanding of my place in the world and my responsibility to play a role in preserving that world. How does one measure that against the GHG emissions from the flight?

You report about staying at an eco-lodge, at which your seem to have learned some things. How do we place a price on that?

In any event, many thanks for your post, as it addresses something we all need to confront. I shall continue to think about it.

Marie Snyder said...

On placing a price on travelling as a learning experience - it's still my personal education at the expense of the world. I think no matter how we slice it, luxury travel is a selfish act, taking extra for ourselves while we shorten the life of our habitat. It's hard to confront our own lack of ethics without diving into rationalizations for why it's okay just this once or just for us. We should be smart enough to rise above this kind of behaviour and justifications, but I think that's the whole problem: we're not. Almost none of us.