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It’s Not Easy Going Green

December 13, 2009

Confirming suspicions long held by anyone who’s shopped at Whole Foods or seen a typical self-righteous, “eco-conscious” or “political” hipster, a new study has revealed that buying green can make you an asshole.  Sorta.

According to the study, “moral self-regulation” tends to allow people to do other bad things when they think they’ve done their “good deed for the day.”

This study on green purchases is just the latest data point in a body of research on how humans engage in what’s been termed “moral self-regulation.”  Previous studies have found, for instance, that white people who voted for Barack Obama felt more justified in engaging in racist behavior later on. Similarly, people who engage in an act of gender fairness have been shown to be more likely to engage in an act of sexism down the line.

Buying green is at best a band-aid solution if it’s not coupled with a more fundamental and thorough awareness of the problems people think they’re solving.  For example, how many yuppies can you think of who only sip on bottled water because they think they’re environmentally aware of all the nasty pollutants out there?  Well, bottled water production requires 17 million barrels of oil (enough for 1 million cars per year) and three times as much water than each bottle contains.

Opportunity costs are almost never weighed by green buyers, though not always due to sheer laziness.  This ignorance may be the deliberate result of companies who have an incentive to obfuscate the actual environmental impact of their products.  By making a product appear more “green,” individuals seeking moral high ground are subject to the typical hipster fallacy, which is that the premium they’re paying is for a credit on their moral calculus.  And of course, the regular mainstream product that is probably more efficient on the whole (like tap water) doesn’t produce the ostentatious evidence of one’s “green cred” to reinforce that moral calculus.  Sometimes due to laziness, sometimes due to misinformation, the problem lies in assuming that self-styled “green solutions” may be far from once all the costs are tallied.

Examples of our inability to compare costs abound.  Advocates of going green almost never consider whether or not global warming might be better fought through instituting new technologies rather than cutting emissions and thereby seriously hampering economic development.  Economic development almost always seems to be an irrelevant consideration for the typical green advocate: why care about other suffering people (especially in other countries) when the environment is under so much stress?

Similarly, green protests of genetically modified organisms would undercut the one advance in food technology that has enabled the human population to expand to the state it has reached without total world conflict over food resources.  This leads me to my nominee for the most important person to die this year: Norman Bourlag.  Bourlag was the father of the Green Revolution and probably prevented more deaths and raised economic conditions for all more than any other individual in the history of mankind.  He’s someone who know what going green should really mean: first, understanding human incentives and capabilities, then harnessing the right technologies to create solutions that don’t rely on self-assessed human benevolence.  He knew that going green should really mean saving everyone in order to save the world.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. fish permalink
    December 13, 2009 7:37 pm

    was agra-tech necessary to reduce the risk of resource wars, or merely sufficient? could widespread adoption modern philosophies of green conservation have staved off conflict without allowing a commensurate population explosion? i don’t portend to know the answer, but i think the question should be asked. also, does moral self-regulation “allow people to do other bad things” that they wouldn’t have done without such permission or does it simply help them sleep at night. other things being equal, isn’t it better to do 9 bad things than 10? seeing as i’m probably wrong about all of this, and i have no business commenting on a blog post when i’ve got 2 papers and an exam to complete, i will shut up now. hi rick!

  2. slickricks permalink*
    December 14, 2009 4:48 am

    Hi Fish!

    It seems easy to say that agra-tech was sufficient, and if you look at the basic Malthusian point of arithmetic growth in the food supply vs. geometric growth of the population consuming it, then it seems like a new form of cultivation would also be necessary at some point down the road. The most relevant data here is probably the decline of arable land per person (simply because population grows and arable land stays roughly the same, unless you include the advances gained by biotech) and the increase in the amount of consumption. Unless you assume away the trend of population growth in toto, I think agra-tech was also necessary.

    In terms of the moral calculus question, the studies/experiments I linked to seem to show that obtaining some “moral offset” does induce more “bad behavior” than the control group, so it would seem like one good/green deed is a free pass on some other bad/selfish deed. I think you’re right that some people would say they are interested in achieving the most good and don’t offset their moral free pass with a selfish deed, but these behavioral observations unsurprisingly indicate that not all people take such a wide view.

    Good luck with finals!


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