Our Thoughts » On Environmentalism

Written by Kevin

At a family Christmas party, an in-law once asked me, “Are you one of those environmentalists?” An obviously loaded question, prompted by their learning that I was (at the time) working on climate change research at a Washington D.C. think tank. To be honest, I had never considered if the label applied to myself. I mustered the best answer I could on the spot: “I doubt I’m what you think of as an environmentalist.”

I admit that I cringe when I hear the phrase “save the planet”. The late, great comedian George Carlin had a riff on the subject that I rather enjoy:

“I’m tired of these self-righteous environmentalists. These white, bourgeois Liberals who think the only thing wrong with this country is there aren’t enough bicycle paths. People trying to make the world safe for their Volvos…Narrow, unenlightened self-interest doesn’t impress me. Besides, there is nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine. The people are fucked.”

Listening to Carlin’s full routine today, he comes across as a bit cavalier. It was recorded in 1992, before widespread knowledge of climate change, and Carlin clearly had in mind 1970’s-style environmentalism and “conventional” forms of pollution.

Still, I like Carlin’s take for two reasons. First, he justifiably charges environmentalists with hypocritical “virtue signaling” in a way that is still salient 30 years later. Second, he implies that a moral person should be more concerned about the welfare of people (who are, after all, “fucked”) than something as abstract as “the planet”. I find myself in agreement on both points.

All of this is to say that I’m a bit sour on “environmentalism” as most people seem to define it. When I tell acquaintances that I am “an economist working on climate change” (not quite accurate but close enough), the two most common responses are: “I’m going to install solar panels” and “My next car will be electric”. Which leaves me wondering if I should tell these (very nice, I’m sure) people that there are more impactful ways to spend their money. Or should I pose an uncomfortable question: Would you spend the money if it reduced emissions – but didn’t come with a shiny, new thing to show your friends? I find that neither improves dinner party ambience.

My own sense of environmentalism is inspired, in large part, by the writing of Henry David Thoreau, E.F. Schumacher, and Wendell Berry. Yes, I can revel in the prose (especially Berry’s), but I am most drawn to the practicality running through their thoughts – and the often explicit focus on how we consume. Thoreau famously records his expenses in detail in Walden ($1.73 on molasses, FYI). Schumacher is focused on how to “obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.” And Berry insists that a healthy community, family, farm, or marriage requires a sense of proportion, the recognition that outsized desires risk the things we most wish to sustain. The wisdom running through each demands a practical notion of “enough” – how much is enough, how best to procure it, how to recognize when you’ve got it, and how to live contentedly with it.

That’s not to say I am deaf to Thoreau’s romanticism. For me, there really is something special about a walk in the woods or a mountaintop breeze. My body responds – physically, tangibly – to natural settings. But I’ve come to realize that not everyone shares this feeling. Moreover, “naturalistic spirituality” simply isn’t necessary to the kind of environmentalism I wish to promote. In other spheres, one can speak of “Christian ethics” without belief in the virgin birth. I think we can (and should) speak of environmental ethics without recourse to tree hugging and hemp.

My personal environmentalism, then, is a matter-of-fact pairing of environmental science and humanist ethics, rooted in everyday consumption choices. (As a matter of public policy, I fully support a national carbon tax). It just so happens that my professional work is concerned with measuring the environmental impact of household consumption, so this is something I really could go on about. I will spare you.

My biggest beef with “sustainable consumption” as promoted and practiced today is that it is overwhelmingly focused on individual product selection rather than one’s overall environmental footprint. A consumer’s ability to distinguish between a “green” and “greenwashed” product is effectively nil. And I’m not convinced that differences between products are significant enough to warrant much thought – or a price premium. When Sarah was pregnant, I reviewed the “lifecycle assessment” literature on disposable versus cloth diapers; I came away convinced that, for all intents and purposes, it was a wash (pun intended). We opted for disposable, and I haven’t lost any sleep.

My view: A dollar spent on a “green” product may reduce your footprint. A dollar you don’t spend on a product definitely reduces it.

When I taught environmental studies at a local university, I was always asked some version of the following question: “OK, so if I want to be greener, what should I do?” My response: “Do you want an honest answer or one you’ll like?”. Because the truth is that the lifestyle choices that actually matter in the big picture are ones that people generally don’t like to change. If someone is serious about living more sustainably, I advise them to:

  • Live in a small home
  • Opt for a lower-footprint commute
  • Avoid meat (especially beef)
  • Avoid airplanes
  • Avoid low-quality consumption

It’s simple, but challenging. If pressed to rank-order the list, I’d put “Avoid low-quality consumption” at the very top. Consumption is “low-quality” when it fails to deliver significant or sustained well-being. Simply asking, “Will this purchase really change my life?” inevitably transforms habits and material preferences more broadly. (For similar reasons, 2nd position goes to “Live in a small home”.) Notice that the list is more about general lifestyle characteristics than specific products or technologies. Focusing on specific products tends to produce a misplaced sense of virtue. I really don’t care what your drinking straw is made from — and neither should you. The truly effectual choice is to ask whether the iced mocha latte (or whatever) is really what’s missing in your life. That’s not a matter of “being green”. It’s just frugality.

I am generally dubious that large numbers of people will ever be deeply motivated by strictly environmental concerns, but I have great faith in people’s desire to live their best life. And I happen to think that frugality – properly understood and practiced – is an excellent way to do that. So while a low-cost lifestyle is not necessarily a low-impact lifestyle, there is considerable overlap in practice. For these reasons, I think of frugality as the “psychological backdoor” to my kind of environmentalism.