Environmental activists are weird. Filled with a deep-rooted desire to do good, to save the world from imminent destruction, and to preach the ecological gospel to anybody (un)willing to hear it, they wield a surprising amount of influence — in the media if not in the halls of power. They get a lot of cred and admiration for their efforts, but perhaps they shouldn’t.
Most people agree with their creed: humans greatly impact our environment, perhaps to the detriment of fundamental ecological systems, and we ought to reduce that. Few of us accept their unrelenting extremism and unwillingness to accept trade-offs. What bothers the opponents of environmental activism is not the environmentally conscious goals or even facts presented, but the activists’ blatant hypocrisy and aura of sanctimonious religiosity.
In the activists’ eyes, every action is classified as “good” or “bad” if it has easy-to-understand first-order environmental benefits or harms: recycling plastic is good, littering is bad; planting trees is good, one-use takeaway bags are bad; heating your house with “renewable energy” is good, burning gasoline is bad; etc.
The trouble begins when these individually good actions are coupled with bad ones. What if I drove my gasoline-gobbling car to the tree-planting site? What if recycled plastic, as in the U.S., ends up in the same landfill as the other trash, neutralizing my “good” efforts? What if I discard (or lose) my sustainable metal straws before I’ve used them enough times for the CO2 emissions to break even compared to single-use plastic?
The inability to see these chains of decisions is a qualifying criterion for becoming an environmental activist. For the rest of us, it is too much to stomach a sermon about the essential virtue of reducing one’s climate impact while knowing that the preacher, in other domains of their life, completely negates the minor climate benefit of whatever action they implore us to take. The hypocrisy is real.
Illustrative Anecdotes Abound
Mike Munger’s writing on recycling is a splendid example, concluding that for most commodities, recycling is a religious ritual, done for feel-good reasons rather than actual impact. Stories like these show the cognitive dissonance of do-gooders:
“I once watched a young woman in Vitacura, Chile, wait in line in her idling auto for more than 10 minutes so she could park and put two two-liter plastic bottles into a recycle bin. That’s not economics, that’s a religious ceremony. Without scale, most recycling harms the environment.”
If we need to reduce our climate impact to save the environment (it’s always unclear what the environment is, and what exactly we’re saving it from), it is the sum of our impacts that matters. If we do enough “bad” in some part of our lives, we shouldn’t applaud ourselves for doing some “good” elsewhere, especially if the impact of the bad completely dwarfs the impact of the good.
Even the celebrated wonderchild St. Greta falls prey to this. In pledging not to fly because of aviation’s outrageously large emissions (per-person emissions, mind you, not in aggregate, where aviation only accounts for 3 percent of global emissions), she famously took a high-tech wind-powered sailing boat across the Atlantic to speak before the UN. The only trouble was that she outsourced the flying emissions to the boat’s crew, several of whom flew back across the Atlantic after delivering St. Greta to the UN’s doorsteps, where she continued to lambast the world’s emitters of climate gases. The total emissions of Greta’s highly politicized non-carbon journey were, in other words, much higher than had she simply bought a standard plane ticket.
International travel, too, is cherished by the very people whose ideals should preclude them from visiting places much further away than their neighboring villages. In a wholly representative picture of the righteous environmentalist traveler, I recently met a vegan girl who carried her own non-plastic straw, tablet-format toothpaste, and wooden toothbrush so that she could avoid the horrors of plastic. The irony had not dawned on her that her microscopic climate impact from these efforts was completely swamped by the emissions needed to make possible her five-week vacation across the Atlantic.
Roughly estimated, the emissions of her round-trip flights add about 3.3 tons of CO2 equivalents to her climate footprint, increasing her average annual German per capita figure by more than one-third — or an entire year’s worth of CO2 emissions for the average person in Botswana. In comparison, eating a plant-based diet saves about 0.8 tons of carbon-equivalent emissions a year according to the Guardian’s rundown.
Taking the most extreme carbon life-cycle-analysis figure for plastic, and presuming that my travel companion’s toys used no resources, her annual climate savings likely amounted to about 800 grams (minus the energy and resource cost going into her toys). Had she stayed home, she could have safely consumed plastic as usual for something like 4,000 years before reaching her emissions from this one round-trip flight. Put differently, it takes about 4,000 years for her reduced plastic use to pay off the climate damage of her five-week Caribbean adventure (or much more if we take into account the energy use and resources going into producing new toothbrushes and straws when they wear out and/or need cleaning).
In another instance of this extraordinary doublethink, I had a flatmate that defended her twice-a-year trip across the Atlantic, London to Vancouver, with some serious mental accounting. Since she would have studied abroad in this phase of her life regardless, the emissions were a sunk cost, as if the environmental damage caused by her behavior were somehow mitigated by her rationalization. Like the vegan traveler above, the meager attempts of biking, reducing plastic use, and eating plant-based foods were entirely swamped by her frequent air travels.
With environmental activists, we can do this all day. A German friend of mine working for DHL, a partly government-owned postal and delivery service, frequently observes criticism about the company’s CO2 footprint — ignoring, of course, that had their customers individually driven to brick-and-mortar stores instead of making their purchases online, the amount of emissions would most likely have been much higher.
Yesterday, like most days during turtle hatching season, volunteers with the ASVO marine preservation organization in Montezuma, Costa Rica, eagerly helped 50 or so newborn turtles into the Pacific. Almost literally rolling out a red carpet — raking the sand to even it out — for these apparently endangered turtles, a handful of mostly European volunteers and a few dozen foreign spectators enjoyed the wonders of seeing these adorable creatures crawl toward their first swim.
The moment the first turtle reached the alluring waters of the sunset-colored waves, a bird of prey swooped down and ate it. So much for a helping human hand: evolution 1; environmentalist do-gooder 0. The artificial concentration of turtles had created a feeding frenzy for predators. The first of many, it seems, as something like only one in every thousand turtles will avoid predators and reach adulthood.
An info brochure from Tambor Bay Turtles proudly states that they have released over 15,000 turtle hatchlings over the last three years. Countless human work hours, eagerly provided by Western environmentalist activists, were spent in ensuring — at best — a permanent increase of the world’s adult turtle population by around 15 animals. All that, purchased with some exorbitant number of flights across the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.
I don’t know what the biodiversity benefit is from 15 extra adult turtles, but I imagine that it’s less than the damage from even a single flight across the Atlantic. Safe to say, if these activists truly cared about the environment as they claim, they would refrain from these sorts of sanctimonious activities. But they don’t. And they feel good about themselves and require praise from their peers.
What angers most people about climate activists is not their goals, but their elaborate system of doublethink, their profound cognitive dissonance, and the truly fascinating ability to rationalize their own behavior; they ignore their own seriously harmful actions while praising themselves for the meager and largely inconsequential benefits of their climate activism.
They view themselves as part of the solution. Perhaps they should reconsider.