Why Environmentalism is 'Unethical', Anti-Human, and Elitist

It’s not often we agree with George Monbiot.

We cannot change the world by changing our buying habits … I have always been deeply suspicious of the grand claims made for consumer democracy: that we can change the world by changing our buying habits.

But then again, it’s not because his insight is all that profound…

A change in consumption habits is seldom effective unless it is backed up by government action. You can give up your car for a bicycle – and fair play to you – but unless the government is simultaneously reducing the available road space, the place you’ve vacated will just be taken by someone who drives a less efficient car than you would have driven (traffic expands to fill the available road-space). Our power comes from acting as citizens – demanding political change – not acting as consumers.

It seems that Monbiot is against consumer democracy because it seems to rob us of our power as citizens, and requires government intervention in order to make it work.

(Actually he means ‘ethical consumerism’. ‘Consumer democracy’ means treating the voter as a consumer, whereas ‘ethical consumerism’ means treating the act of consuming or buying as an act with the potential to create change. But we nit-pick here.)

This is interesting. George rightly draws a distinction between consumer demand, and demand for political change. The former is problematic, because it requires government action.

Seems George would only be happy if the government is responding to demands from citizens, rather than from consumers. Again, we find ourselves in agreement with Monbiot here. But since when was he against government action that didn’t enjoy popular support?

Last year, following the Climate Change Committee’s report, Monbiot criticised what he felt were targets that were inadequate.

My reading of the new projections suggests that to play its part in preventing two degrees of global warming, the UK needs to cut greenhouse gases by roughly 25% from current levels by the end of 2012 – a quarter in four years. But how the heck could this be done? Here is a list of measures which could be enacted almost immediately. They require no economic or technological miracles; but they do demand that the government is brave enough to govern.

His proposals for a ‘brave’ government were

1. Immediately renegotiate the European Emissions Trading Scheme

2. Use the money this raises for:

a. A crash programme for training builders.

b. A home improvement scheme like Germany’s, but twice as fast.

3. Announce that incandescent lightbulbs will no longer be sold in the United Kingdom

4. Increase vehicle excise duty for the most polluting cars to £3000 a year (from the current £400). Use the money this raises to:

a. Start closing key urban streets to private cars and dedicating them to public transport and cycling.

b. Increase the public subsidy for bus and train journeys.

c. Train thousands of new coach drivers and public transport operators.

d. Scrap the airport expansion programme.

5. Stop the burning of moorland

6. Stop all opencast coal mining and rescind planning permission for new works.

On the one hand, George wants a mass movement of people to demand the government acts. On the other, he wants the government to act ‘bravely’, ‘top-down’, in spite of the absence of demands ‘from below’.

This is something we’ve explored a lot on this blog. The green movement isn’t really a movement at all. At best, it is a phenomenon of individuals whose only thing in common is their sense of disconnect and disorientation. At worst, it is a self-serving elitist club. Yet their shrill demands for ‘action’ count for more than the disinterest of the vast majority, and virtually the entire political establishment has been remarkably sympathetic to the green cause. Hence, the very existence of the Climate Change Committee, whose report Monbiot didn’t feel was sufficient. It was created to set the UK’s emissions targets after the fiasco of attempting to set the target politically, in Parliament, democratically. The Labour government proposed that the Climate Change Act would commit the UK to a reduction of 60% by 2050. The Conservative Party responded, by claiming that they would reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. The Liberal Democrats said that they would create a 100% carbon neutral Britain by 2050, and ban the petrol engine and ban nuclear power. Each side in this game of politics-by-numbers claimed to have the very same science behind them. Yet it produced different results. The implication is stark: climate change has very little to do with responding to crisis, and everything to do with striking a pose. To recover from this embarrassing state of affairs, the government amended the bill, so that targets would be set by an ‘independent’ panel – the Climate Change Committee. The House of Commons, recognising its own impotence, voted overwhelmingly for the bill, with barely a hint of scrutiny, debate, or questioning. Except, of course, from environmentalists, who claimed that the new legislation didn’t go far enough.

Thus, democracy in the UK defers to imperatives issued by environmentalism, even though it has comprehensively failed to capture the imagination of the mass of citizens. And where democracy does still function in such a way as to represent their wishes, you can expect Monbiot to say something quite, quite different. ‘Why do we allow the US to act like a failed state on climate change?’ he asked in the Guardian, back in June.

It would be laughable anywhere else. But, so everyone says, the Waxman-Markey bill which is likely to be passed in Congress today or tomorrow, is the best we can expect – from America.The cuts it proposes are much lower than those being pursued in the UK or in most other developed nations. Like the UK’s climate change act the US bill calls for an 80% cut by 2050, but in this case the baseline is 2005, not 1990. Between 1990 and 2005, US carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels rose from 5.8 to 7bn tonnes.

Monbiot seems to have forgotten his desire for the people to demand from the government. He forgets that the Climate Change Act and its goals – which he doesn’t think is sufficient anyway – was not produced by a democratically accountable body, and was not the subject of democratic contest. He forgets that, just as in the UK, the green movement is not a popular movement. He forgets that the bill was not produced by a movement of citizens, but a clique of US politicians. Just as with the UK’s Climate Change Act, however, Monbiot nods his approval at it.

I would like to see the bill passed, as it at least provides a framework for future improvements. But why do we expect so little from the US? Why do we treat the world’s most powerful and innovative nation as if it were a failed state, rejoicing at even the faintest suggestion of common sense?

So we can see Monbiot comprehensively in contradiction with himself. If ‘consumer democracy’ is wrong because it requires the intervention of the state in lieu of autonomous political expression, then so too must the climate change act – and anything like it – be wrong. They are not the expression of ‘the masses’ rising up to demand change. Its precepts and values have not been tested democratically. Yet Monbiot approves, although reservedly, and disapproves of the lack of bravery shown by elected representatives in their face of their electors.

In order to wriggle out of this contradiction, Monbiot must find a way of explaining environmentalism’s total failure to create a popular mandate for itself. He goes on in the same article to say:

Thanks to the lobbying work of the coal and oil companies, and the vast army of thinktanks, PR consultants and astroturfers they have sponsored, thanks too to the domination of the airwaves by loony right shock jocks, the debate over issues like this has become so mad that any progress at all is little short of a miracle. […] A combination of corporate money and an unregulated corporate media keeps America in the dark ages. This bill is the best we’re going to get for now because the corruption of public life in the United States has not been addressed. Whether he is seeking environmental reforms, health reforms or any other improvement in the life of the American people, this is Obama’s real challenge.

That is to say that environmentalism is a failure because the public have bought the message given to them by powerful propaganda machines, working on behalf of oil companies, etc, etc, blah, blah blah.

This is another constant theme of Monbiot’s writing. In December last year, in an attempt to explain the same failure, he wrote that ‘online, planted deniers drive a blinkered fiction’:

In his fascinating book Carbon Detox, George Marshall argues that people are not persuaded by information. Our views are formed by the views of the people with whom we mix. Of the narratives that might penetrate these circles, we are more likely to listen to those that offer us some reward. A story that tells us that the world is cooking and that we’ll have to make sacrifices for the sake of future generations is less likely to be accepted than the more rewarding idea that climate change is a conspiracy hatched by scheming governments and venal scientists, and that strong, independent-minded people should unite to defend their freedoms.

We wrote at the time:

Monbiot is frustrated that he has failed to convince people of his perspective. But rather than reflect on his own argument, which, as we can see is constructed out of sheer bullshit, he finds ways to show faults with people – ordinary, normal, everyday people, not just ‘bloggers’ – and damns the entire human race in the process. We are unthinking automata, objects, blindly obeying the forces that surround us. Only he knows the truth. But the truth that most people can sense is that Monbiot uses the status of scientific factoids, such as the Met Office’s dubious ‘prediction’ to convince people in the same way that a caveman seeks to persuade people with a club. Second, it is transparent to most people that Monbiot is mischaracterising the arguments of the people he sets himself up in opposition to – he doesn’t answer objections, and he makes straw men out of the flame-war battlefield that is the comments section on commentisfree instead of picking up on the arguments that are actually being made. Third, he clearly overstates the relationship between these messages and a conspiracy of vested interests. Fourth, he diminishes the moral character of anyone who takes a different perspective to him. Fifth, he diminishes the intelligence of anyone who sees things differently to him. But the biggest problem for Monbiot is that the second, third, fourth and fifth are, he seems to believe, logical and necessary consequences of the first. He seems to think that, because the Met Office ‘predicted’ the 2008 temperature record (and they didn’t), then he is right to characterise his opponents as he pleases, he is right to think that silly comments on blogs represent the influence of an oil-industry conspiracy, and so on.

In summary, Monbiot believes that the reason that the masses have not risen up to demand action on climate change is because they have been hoodwinked by a conspiracy to subvert the public understanding of the issues, paid for by vast corporate interests. The public are simply too stupid to have seen through this.

This creates a second problem for Monbiot. Now that he has explained the failure of environmentalism as the consequence of the public’s fecklessness, he can no longer make any claim to be at all interested in the public demanding anything from government. Any such political expression might be wrong – it doesn’t create, as it were, its own legitimacy by being a demand for government ‘by the people for the people’. Instead, it might just as well be the result of a corporate conspiracy. Mass action needs George’s approval before it can be considered as a legitimate expression of autonomous political organisation. He needs to check its credentials first. Meanwhile, he’s prepared to accept legislation that lacks such democratic legitimacy, because he knows what’s in the public’s best interests.

Anyway, so far this post has been something of a pre-amble. Albeit a rather long one. What struck us about the article referred to at the top of the thread, other than Monbiot’s misconception of ‘consumer democracy’, is that he points to research that apparently demonstrates scientifically that ethical consumerism does not work. Monbiot explains:

So I wasn’t surprised to see a report in Nature this week suggesting that buying green products can make you behave more selfishly than you would otherwise have done. Psychologists at the University of Toronto subjected students to a series of cunning experiments. First they were asked to buy a basket of products; selecting either green or conventional ones. Then they played a game in which they were asked to allocate money between themselves and someone else. The students who had bought green products shared less money than those who had bought only conventional goods.

The researchers call this the “licensing effect”. Buying green can establish the moral credentials that license subsequent bad behaviour: the rosier your view of yourself, the more likely you are to hoard your money and do down other people.

Then they took another bunch of students, gave them the same purchasing choices, then introduced them to a game in which they made money by describing a pattern of dots on a computer screen. If there were more dots on the right than the left they made more money. Afterwards they were asked to count the money they had earned out of an envelope.

The researchers found that buying green had such a strong licensing effect that people were likely to lie, cheat and steal: they had established such strong moral credentials in their own minds that these appeared to exonerate them from what they did next. Nature uses the term “moral offset”, which I think is a useful one.

The title of the study is “Do Green Products Make Us Better People?”. The abstract reads as follows.

Consumer choices not only reflect price and quality preferences but also social and moral values as witnessed in the remarkable growth of the global market for organic and environmentally friendly products. Building on recent research on behavioral priming and moral regulation, we find that mere exposure to green products and the purchase of them lead to markedly different behavioral consequences. In line with the halo associated with green consumerism, people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green than conventional products. However, people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products. Together, the studies show that consumption is more tightly connected to our social and ethical behaviors in directions and domains other than previously thought.

(Read the whole study here)

The study appears to find that if you think you’ve done the right thing – buying green products – then you allow yourself to do more of the wrong thing – taking more money for your efforts than you were entitled to.

If it is true that buying ‘ethical goods’ makes you more selfish, then surely the lesson is that there’s something wrong with environmental ethics, rather than with its application in the form of ethical consumerism. Rather than ‘moral offset’, we might be talking here about an effect better described as ‘moral displacement’.

Because if it is true that people are receptive to ideas about morality, when ethical and moral values are grounded on environmental precepts, it is no surprise that people behave accordingly. After all, what would Gaia say about taking a few more pennies than you were supposed to have? Or for that matter, what would Gaia say about creating political institutions with control over people’s lives without their consent? Of course, She wouldn’t give a hoot, just so long as the polar bears are happy, and the sea-level remains static.

After all, what is ‘democracy’, when the planet needs saving?

What’s the point of having an argument, when you already know you’re right?

What’s the point of debate, if all it is going to mean is that the wrong ideas get an airing?

Why have a free media, if all it means is that poisonous conspiracies will be allowed to infect the minds of the masses?

The environmental imperative seems to destroy any principles that preceded it.

This is the problem with attempting to locate the basis of ethics without humanity. A few posts ago, we discussed the implausibility of ‘eco-humanism’.  We argued there that the environmental conception of ethics puts the environment prior to humans – that their principle relationship was with the natural/biological order, rather than with one another. Furthermore, the prospect of catastrophe in the environmental narrative precludes any conception of ‘good’. All human action reduces to a quantity of bad, such that we can only speak about one action being less bad than another, using a carbon-footprint calculator, or something. This experiment, if it says anything at all, only shows us the redundancy of environmental ethics.

These are not, so to speak, ‘intuitive’ ethics. They are elite ethics. They are the basis of environmental politics, which constructs political institutions – organisations, laws, regulations and so on – to reproduce its objectives.

So it should be no surprise that, just as the subjects in the experiment felt entitled to lie and cheat, so it goes that politicians, journalists and other environmental activists do not feel bound by conventions and norms when they embrace environmentalism. The rotten heart of this philosophical framework allows them to act as though they were ‘above’ normal politics. For instance, environmental politics is not the subject of democratic scrutiny (e.g. the UK’s Climate Change Act, described above). International frameworks are being sought that will limit the potential of domestic politics, so that resistance – precisely the kind of ‘bottom-up’ demands that Monbiot claimed to desire – to eco-zeal can be ignored. The normal business of politics can be deferred in order to serve the greater good: ‘saving the planet’. Self-serving politicians and vapid moral warriors (Monbiot) can flatter themselves with a sense of purpose, while having nothing in fact to offer. Environmentalism really is immoral, anti-human, and elitist.