This blog was originally published on 18 March 2014 before the term “virtue signalling” came into wide use. While it is part of my updating of my old blog-site that was shut down in 2016, its commentary on the zealots’ lack of humility (and inability thus to improve our ecological position) seems more relevant than ever. I have only updated the text with subsections – the original was written in a stream of consciousness.
Imagine a religion that looks at the problems in the world and concludes that it is because others sin. “If only they could be more like me!” A faith without humility and mercy is hypocritical – a congregation of zealots. As environmentalists build their beliefs into their new temple, the eco-theologians need to remind their followers of the virtue of humility – that they are not without sin.
Since our species came down from the trees and started cultivating rather than hunting and gathering, we have made an inevitable impact on our environment. For just as long, we have been concerned with how to live well in this relationship (the Bible, from the first pages, is peppered with passages about living well with nature). The sciences developed from this relationship, as did a great deal of the arts. It is part of being human that we are aware of, and seek to improve our relationship with, and within nature. But the first step is accepting the fact that, as a living being, I pollute (I take more from nature than I give back).
Eco-Pharisees (Matthew 23)
In the last few decades though, a certain other human trait has become quite evident – the zealous capacity of denial. This class of subspecies has not only convinced themselves that “others pollute, I don’t”, but also, and this is the delightful part: “I have charged myself with the responsibility to shame the polluters and rise above them to save the planet”. Since the Pharisees, much of our species has politely ignored such sanctimonious judgements, but as they are growing in numbers, and imposing their will on others, their views should be examined more closely.
One of the biggest problems with today’s environmental movement is that their philosophy has developed from a series of idealist projects (they call them “campaigns”, ie, something designed to have a winner rather than an achievement). When each campaign is put next to each other, the inconsistencies shine brightly: campaigning against fossil fuels, and also against nuclear or hydroelectric sources of energy; campaigning for organic food and against fertilisers and biotechnologies; campaigning for animal rights but then eating beef (grass-fed!) or chicken (free-range!) … The contradictions are as endless as the hypocrisy is wide.
End Pollution – Reject the System
What arranges these contradictions into a tolerable order is the rejection of our present approach. Idealist environmentalism (fundamentalism of the religious zealots) is based on a mistrust of humanity to try to solve problems it may have created. It is not enough to work to clean our beaches, ensure good quality food and provide breathable air – what realist environmentalists (most humans who accept that they pollute) would want to do – they demand to put a total stop to our polluting.
These idealist environmentalists feel that, under the present conditions, these problems will never go away (heathens will continue to pollute) and aim to change the game. They bemoan the consequences of the technologies and developments of humanity, warn us of the apocalypse of our own doing, and once the accusations are expressed, do nothing more (because they argue that the system is broken).
Sustainability: A Virtue or a Process?
“I pollute” is a very hard reality for an idealist environmentalist to accept. The concept of sustainability (a key ethical virtue arising from today’s narrative) has been designed for denial. To live in a manner where you are leaving as much to future generations as you have received sounds laudable, but it is based on a pretence that our activity and livelihood can then be declared non-polluting. If something is deemed sustainable, it is put on the acceptable shelf and we go away feeling that we have accomplished something good. This desire to feel good about ourselves blinds us into what I had referred to in my last blog as a “sustainability bias“.
But the concept of sustainability needs a rethink by realists – it is not a state of (well) being, but a process in reducing our levels of pollution. We must move towards sustainability (I pollute less) but we will never be sustainable (I don’t pollute).
The problem with the self-righteous “I don’t pollute” is that some very environmentally unsound solutions have been created in an attempt to cover up their stink and raise their eco-profile. A key environmental achievement (one thing that would truly make a difference to human health and the environment) would be to get the cars off the roads. That is a compromise no one in the West seems willing to make as we watch more vehicles come into service. Instead of reducing cars on the roads, we are designing electric cars and hybrids, convincing ourselves of the ridiculous dream that we can have “mobility with morality”. A person with an electric car is not a saint – in reality, he or she pollutes even more.
Put Mercy and Humility into Sustainability
As a religion, our present-day environmentalism should learn from more advanced religions on how to deal with such a cornucopia of original sins. While accommodating many Christian rituals, eco-theology has not integrated the virtue of humility or mercy into its doctrines. A Christian will identify his or her relationship with the world as a sinner, and then seek out ways to be liberated from this bondage (while accepting that sin is part of being human, hence the mercy). It would not be very Christian to say “Others sin and I must set them straight”. Indeed, eco-theology has a long maturation process ahead of itself (environmentalists are not the gods of creation, but rather its – nature’s – humble servants).
But “I pollute” does not make me feel good about myself (the key to any belief system is to feel that our actions are good). “I eat organic food and I feel good. I drive an electric car and I feel good. I recycle and I feel good. I use energy from green sources and I feel good! Ergo, I am good.”
Well done and I am happy you feel that way. But please be aware that the moment you wish to share such good feelings and impose these lifestyles on others with a missionary zeal, you had better come up with stronger scientific arguments since feeling good about yourself does not mean your actions are good for the environment (organic food, electric power trains, recycling and green energy sources all have serious, and seriously underestimated environmental consequences). You are merely sugar-coating “I pollute” and it is leaving a rather sticky residue of hypocrisy on the planet (more CO2, more waste, less food security …).
Pragmatism over the Idealist’s Perfection
The Risk-Monger is, no doubt, a pragmatist, and one who has little patience for idealists. Idealists have to realise that they don’t solve problems with dreams, and when they are forceful (and successful) in pushing their dreams on others, these distractions can cause bigger problems.
- By rejecting hydraulic fracturing (fracking), these idealists are blocking the means for cheaper, more accessible and less polluting natural gas.
- In favour of their uncompromising dream of renewables, they also are blocking nuclear and hydroelectricity projects tying us tighter to burning more coal and oil.
- Developing and promoting carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a way to pollute less, but if you are blocked by zero-tolerance for anything but your idealism, we shall never see a world with less CO2.
Is fracking perfect? Is CCS perfect? No, but they are significant and better than the demands of the idealists that will never meet our needs. Saying ‘No!’ to every attempted solution is something a baby does … not very mature.
Part of the idealists’ dream is a world of micro-economies, locally growing their own produce, goods and services while consuming much less, free from plastics and chemicals (sic) and free from the powers of multinationals and world powers. They have rejected the dream of modernism (that science and technology will continue to solve the problems we face), demanding that the world transform itself with locally generated, green smart grids and small agricultural communes (entailing a Neo-Malthusian drive to depopulate and reverse the present path of development).
Such dreams have been articulated by groups as diverse as Greenpeace, Population Matters, the Story of Stuff and Corporate Europe Observatory. But as long as we focus on the need for radical revolutionary thinking (on lovely dreams which will never happen), we will do little to solve the problems we are facing today.
Let’s be realistic. Polluting is part of being human; polluting less is a human ambition. Nobody wilfully wants to pollute. Demanding that others adopt a completely different lifestyle and obstruct their human desires is a naïve idealism that only distracts us from solving the problems of our pollution. Attacking science and innovative industries, the eco-religious equivalent of a witch hunt, worsens our situation.
Unfortunately, we are in a world where those more savvy in manipulating new communications tools to express their eco-religious rhetoric have a greater influence on decision-makers and policy debates. So fine, follow your dreams and live in your denial: you don’t pollute and you smell better than me. All I can say is there has been a lot more stink since your dreams have captured the mainstream.
Sadly, until the idealist environmentalists grow up, there will be more problems for pragmatists to solve.