Walking the walk

Dave Roberts has an interesting post at Gristmill called "There are worse things than hypocrisy". It's a response to a reader who sends the question:
In a recent column, George Monbiot excoriates environmental superstars for not walking the talk. So what about the Grist luminaries? How do you live in reality?
I have long thought that for most people, the goal of conservation should be to cut down on the quantity of waste one produces, or the amount of fuel or electricity one consumes. The goal is not to become the most virtuous environmentalist/survivalist, living in a cabin without electricity and sustaining oneself off the garden in the back. Instead, the idea is to figure out how to sustain modern lifestyles that have been developed over decades while eliminating the unnecessary excesses.

Imagine how much we would cut down on if we all just refused the plastic bags or cut out meat even 2 days a week.

While I think Roberts is right to disdain the claim of hypocrisy, I don't entirely agree with his response. At the end of the piece, he writes:
Whether I, or you, or any particular person lives a life of environmental virtue is all-but-irrelevant to the larger environmental effort. The goal is creating a human society where a life of environmental virtue is de facto, something individuals live without thinking twice about it, because their material and social circumstances channel them in that direction.
Yes, of course the point is to change the social forces in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly direction. But I don't think that people publicly advocating such cultural change can afford to make no changes in their lives. I think the best course of action is to make small but obvious changes--the canvas bags at the grocery store, living closer to work, consolidating the errands to cut down on car trips--to demonstrate to other people that we can still enjoy modern conveniences while drastically cutting down our abuses of them.

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Now this is a deep topic.

I think Roberts is strictly correct, simply because whether he leads an environmentally thrifty life or is wildly wasteful, you can't tell. There is no effect on your life (assuming you don't live in his immediate proximity), and about all you can do is take his word for how he lives.

But we certainly want people to take such issues very seriously and feel the burden of our obligation to our fellow human beings and the generations to come. I've thought about this a lot lately, as I've received quite a few notes from readers about my personal energy saving practices. I seriously considered not talking about them publicly, but decided that I had to be open about the details, even though I expected some would trigger negative e-mails. (So far they haven't, and I'm not sure how to interpret that, frankly.)

My details are on my site, at: http://www.grinzo.com/energy/index_005.html#spot, with a brief follow-up piece at:


(After this Friday, July 8, that second URL will change to:

Interesting post at your site, Lou. Well, obviously I'm quite mainstream, so your habits don't horrify me at all. I think your description of your life is exactly what I'm advocating here. If everyone just cut down on their energy use by, say, 20%, think about how much fossil fuel we'd save. Surely it would help extend the plateau, although I imagine that someone might still object that we're ultimately going to run out of these non-renewable resources someday, and prolonging that day doesn't help much. I would hope that we could use the extended plateau time to figure out other sources of energy--preferably renewable--that could be combined with fossil fuels so that we can extend the life even longer.

Of course, what we really need is for companies to cut down on their energy use...

Actually - the Monbiot piece ultimately comes to the conclusion that we are all hypocrites, and we need to get the governments to do the right thing - personal responsibility is not filling the gap.

Jon S--True, but Monbiot's conclusion is something that Roberts takes issue with. I agree with Roberts, who writes "I would say, more broadly, that we must push for structural change. That involves changes in laws and regulations, yes, but also changes in popular and business culture, as well as changes in physical infrastructure -- the places we live, how we transport ourselves, the way we generate energy, how we manufacture the material items we use every day." He goes on to say that this would be a corporate decision, but I would still argue that personal actions could go a very long way too. I don't think individuals are doing enough yet.

but see, this is/was my point about collective action and free-ridership...the only people who behave in an environmentally-conscious manner right now are those whose norms/resources dictate that it is rational to do so.

Therefore, if this rationality holds, it is only when individuals themselves realize that it is rational (through higher gas prices? through global warming? through govt coercion-when/if it gets really bad) will they change their behavior...and the only way that happens is through sincere and societally reinforced norms and/or govt coercion.

one thing the economists are right about most of the time, humans are rational actors most of the time in the choice set that they perceive...sad, but true.

Conserving energy individually we just free more fossiles for the others. After the "Limits of Growth" -discussion in the 70's everybody should have known what was coming. They gave the world about 30 years growth on the non-renewables. The peaking of the US oil and the first oil crisis was a warning. A lot was done. The oil price went up, the share of oil in energy consumption went down. All kinds of energy conservation and efficiency efforts were realized. So here we are. The Jevons Paradox works here. Increasing energy efficiency and conservation increases the use of energy.

Hundreds of millions of people in the world live a practically zero-fossiles life, just as the environmentalists want. I.e, just enough to allow the rest to use more energy. No problem here.

Of course we will learn to conserve energy when the Peak Oil and Peak Energy arrives. Then there is nothing else to do. The US oil consumption dropped 6 - 7 % in few months during the 1973 oil crisis. It was temporary of course but shows that sharp reductions are possible if necessary. The real task is to cope with the consequences.

Yes, I am personally a conservationist. It is senseless to use needlessly non-renewable energy. But I don't think my personal lifestyle choices can do much difference.

It may not help the society over all because of Jevon's Paradox (an open question), but changing your life now will help you deal with the coming scarcity. If you don't eat meat, don't drive, don't own a lot of techno crap, and conserve as much water and electricity as possible around the house, they rest of the coming problems won't be as difficult to deal with.

I think that people should practice what they preach - period. If one does not do this, then you are a visible hypocrite, and whatever you are verbally advocating is rendered moot by the actual practices within your life. This is simply the way people think, and to ignore it is to ignore our own natures.

Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it or not, living a "smaller footprint" existence is the most logical and intelligent choice. This is especially true for those who are actively engaged in thinking about things like overshoot, resource depletion, commons, etc. To reduce the Earth-burden is the only logical long term choice. It is also the most cost effective choice.

I am not advocating running to the woods and living in a stick hut. I am saying that once the knowledge of where we are heading has come to rest within the psyche, there is only one correct way to proceed.

As a race, hunanity has yet to confront the issues of resource depletion, overshoot, and false economy. As many said earlier - once that finally happens, the right choices will be made.

Businesses will adapt if the consumer forces them via their choices. That is simple economics. But Governments can mandate rules to funnel these choices in directions most favorable to their own livelihood. Economies are not truly free - and never have been in recent history.

Typically, Governments and their mouthpieces have obfuscated or hidden these issues to avoid the general populace gaining a true understanding. Once the common folk have grasped the options for themselves and their children, government itself will be viewed as one of the culprits. Government waste, excess and profligacy are so massive that they dwarf any changes the general populace could make on their own.

If we take any country and look at their Government (local, state, federal, armed forces, and all industries that rely on Government largesse or contracts), I would venture to say that we are looking at the single largest consumer of resources within each country. We are staring at a resource gobbling hydra in each country, that has taken on a life of its own.

The general populace can make changes, but they will also need to take control of their governments for it to work.

Greed, consumption, control, aggression are programmed into humans and many other species by the evolutionary process. Otherwise we wouldn't be here at the pinnacle of evolution. Asking people to forego consumption or conserve is akin to asking a bird to stop flying. Some folks will respond to the prospect of depletion by cutting back, but a huge majority will say sorry, it's someone else's problem, and continue to exercise their evolutionary destiny.
I think it's enough that we are preparing ourselves for the future: we'll be much further ahead when the fit hits the shan, I've been to too many group lunches where I keep my order simple and cheap, and get handed a bill for double what I ordered because the pigs buy everything on the menu. Why should I (we) transfer our energy savings to all the energy hogs out there?
I don't want to be a Jevons Paradox loser:

"Jevons paradox implies that as individuals become increasingly efficient, the overall economy will compensate by supporting additional individuals and increasing overall consumption." Wikpedia

However, I am prepared to cut back to the bone when required. And that will likely be the case when there are 2 hour line-ups at the gas station, and gas prices sport a 5 handle.

I think that you will find that as most people become conscious of the energy situation then they factor it into a lot of different decisions. At some stage I will go through some of the individual steps we have taken in our house over the years. (But then you have to remember that we were living in it at the time of the last problem, and the one before that).

Right now, American society places a much greater value on conspicuous consumption (bling reaches across every strata of society) than on (to use a really negative word) thrift. We all know that. No book or essay, hypocritical or not, is going to reach out and change that. In my opinion it will take a solid economic shock to change public consumption. If we don't get that shock, it will just continue.

Environmentalists who worry about being hypocrites ... they are just spending too much time looking in the mirror, as the world passes them by.

I try to be extra attractive and charming and happy when visibly tree-hugging. There's always some image to hook it onto, to convert wasteful display into thrifty display: how grandma did it, pioneer he-man self-sufficiency, opensource roll-your-own, Madeline urbanity. Cleverness and forethought and relative independence are all fun. I can sell them. I can't sell them very quickly, but I know I have sometimes changed people's behavior. Every little bit changes the market demand from worse to, well, less bad.

After reading this post, I've just now ordered some canvas shopping bags, which I'd been meaning to do anyway. I'm not thinking it will really help the overall situation, but why not do it? As a bonus, they'll be convenient at Costco, which doesn't supply bags at all.

I live in the suburbs and do a fair bit of driving, but we have a relatively efficient car (2003 Honda CR-V) and try not to be profligate. We live two miles from the commuter train station (and my wife's office, which is across the street from it), and I sometimes bike over there, though not as often as I should. My wife usually walks home and leaves the car for me, which saves a round trip if she were to pick me up (impractical with the kids' sleep schedules anyway). I know we're not living a deprived life at all--not the sort I suppose we'll be forced into should the energy transition go as badly as many predict--but at least we're somewhat mindful of the situation. And at least we're in a relatively dense suburb, where we could walk the mile and a half to the grocery store if we needed to. Not that there'll be anything at the grocery store, though, right? Well, we'll walk to the community garden or whatever.