Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Towards a better definition of envirosmug

I was about to write my most non-libertarian post ever, demanding that the government step in and demand good environmental behavior so that it's not left to the consumer, who will either do a bit of the right thing with a hefty dose of smug or, turned off by the smug, proudly swing plastic grocery bags from the sunroof of his SUV. (Assuming SUVs can have sun roofs?), leading, apparently, to crankiness and marital strife, but then found that this rant's been written.

So, while I endorse Amanda Marcotte's post (not that PG, say, couldn't locate a turn of phrase in it that turns out to be shockingly questionable - I didn't read it that closely) I would only add that there's a bit more to the smugness question. Marcotte claims envirosmug is only something imagined by those who feel guilty about their own behavior. That's not how I see it. As long as the more important environmental choices are left to the individual, certain individuals (who manage to cluster at various Whole Foodses where I sometimes shop) pat themselves on the back just a teensy bit too enthusiastically for whatever it is they do that (most visibly) helps the environment, while conveniently ignoring whatever it is they do not. When I think "smug," I'm picturing not a vegetarian or a cyclist, but someone who carries a tote with one of those "I care" logos, filled perhaps with the odd "I care" product, into the SUV to drive the four blocks home. Or someone who takes the time to lecture Mark Bittman that tomatoes are out-of-season, when all the man is trying to do with this particular recipe is to encourage people to a) cook at home, and b) try a meal without meat. As I see it, government intervention here wouldn't be about bringing the 'bad' in sync with the 'good,' but simply removing self-presentation from the equation, sort of like if the cost of a 15% tip were included with the price of a meal. Sure, some could do more, but doing just a little bit would no longer feel to anyone like heroism.

22 comments:

PG said...

Marcotte's article seemed unexceptionable to me, aside from her perception of what drove her family's antagonism toward her vegetarianism. She assumes it's their guilt over their own failures to care for the earth. Based on my experiences in the parts of Texas outside the People's Central Republic, however, I think it's just as likely that they were seeing her as being uppity, inappropriately bringing home her college life, and otherwise too big for her britches. At least when my friends who were raised in the South adopted vegetarianism, their families were more likely to say, "Oh, you think you're too good for a pot roast now? Trying to be like some scrawny model? You know how long your grandma slaved over the stove for this?" rather than accusing them of smug environmentalism.

As for your wish to deny people the gratification of feeling morally righteous, it's definitely not conservative. One of the mainstream conservative arguments against state-sponsored charity (e.g. food stamps, Medicaid, etc.) is that this creates a morally worse populace because we assume that our obligations have been taken care of. In this argument, we are all susceptible to Scroogery: "Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses? The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then? I help to support the establishments I have mentioned -- they cost enough."

In present crises, the Scrooge viewpoint continues to be upheld by Rush Limbaugh, and the portly charitable gentlemen's by Nicholas Kristof.

Phoebe said...

I don't wish to deny people the opportunity to feel morally righteous. What I want is for the feeling of moral righteousness to have to match up with morally righteous behavior. As in, if there were no taxes, someone could feel amazing about donating a total of $3 to roads, schools, etc. combined. There's no sense of perspective, of what's helping and what's carrying a green tote bag and smiling at others who do the same. With taxes, there will still be some who want the happy feeling of having helped, but which changes actually matter, and how much each individual really has to help to make a difference overall, will have been assessed systematically, rather than left up to individuals who have no idea. I don't see new taxes or government intervention as the answer to everything, but the environmental issue is a bit different, given the stakes of a little bit here and there solutions as versus everyone coming together to halt damage.

Phoebe said...

Or to explain it another way, returning to the tip example... Yes, adding on 15% might make some who'd have otherwise tipped 17% figure, who cares, tip's included. But it will also make those who'd have gone with 10% or nothing at all tip 15%, and there are plenty who tip even when it's not strictly necessary (see: coffee bars) who'd go on to add an extra 15% or more without even thinking about it, or to feel like big shots, or out of persistent guilt, who knows.

PG said...

But surely we already have within environmental action the government-set mandatory baseline, above which people can do more. SUVs are troublesome because of how they were stupidly categorized as "light trucks" rather than with other non-commercial passenger vehicles (sedans, minivans, etc.), but once the categorization is done properly, the government already mandates the minimum gas mileage such a vehicle must get when bought new. People can then opt to get the hybrid version, which gives them a little extra sense of virtue.

Phoebe said...

Yes, something's already done, just as eating at restaurants, as is, even pre-tip, pays something to waitstaff. If to reach an adequate level, we're relying on goodwill from people who often/mostly lack a good grasp on the situation, it's not enough.

Sigivald said...

We already have fuel and road taxes.

That's "enough", on SUVs.

Less state action, not more, even if we say "environment" and wave the banner of externalities high; I can't see any reason to believe that, in almost any cases, they're so far beyond the priced costs, for things individuals do, that state action is (morally) justified.

I thoroughly sympathise with the goal of getting smug bastards to stop being smug undeservedly - but like with so many other ills, having the State jump in to "fix it" is worse than the disease.

Phoebe said...

Sigivald,

I don't have a drivers' license, grew up without a car in the family, and otherwise know just about nothing detailed about cars, and how bad which ones are relative to which other ones. However, it is my understanding, coming from those with a much better understanding of environmental science than I have, that climate change requires more than the status quo to stop, and that the little things we do thinking every little thing counts don't make much of a difference. I concur with you and with PG that the government is already doing something. But it still seems unclear to the individual consumer what sorts of sacrifices are necessary, what go above-and-beyond, and what just contribute to smugness.

PG said...

Phoebe,

Given that large portions of the American populace (I don't know where Sigivald falls on this) either don't believe climate change is occurring, don't believe it's a problem, or don't believe that human activity has anything to do with it, very little that requires significant sacrifice on anyone's part is going to be required by the government. We've gotten so bad at mandatory sacrifice that even when we're supposedly at war, we still demand tax cuts.

I think there's a basic necessity of convincing enough Americans that a problem even exists and can be ameliorated by changed behavior that's a condition precedent of the government's then mandating such a change. Until then, whatever smug people do exist are probably smug not only because of their behavior (which presumably the SUV-driver knows isn't optimal) but because of their beliefs: unlike benighted souls such as Sarah Palin or Jim Inhofe, I listen to scientists.

PG said...

Sorry, there should be a semi-colon between "changed behavior" and "that's a condition precedent"

Phoebe said...

"I think there's a basic necessity of convincing enough Americans that a problem even exists and can be ameliorated by changed behavior that's a condition precedent of the government's then mandating such a change."

So basically, as with same-sex marriage?

"which presumably the SUV-driver knows isn't optimal"

I realize this was my example, but I'm not satisfied with it. Smugness includes, but is not only, people making a tiny effort (or being non-Palin-esque) and patting themselves on the back. It's also that it's really tough to know what constitutes a big or small effort in terms of actual change to the environment. All we do know is how one can inconvenience one's self the most in the name of the environment(ahem), but it could be that switching to eco-friendly eyeliner and choosing lower-pesticide vegetables are not, in fact, the behaviors that make the most difference. In this sense the tipping analogy (again, me, I realize) isn't quite right, because we know a 20% tip is higher than a 12% one, but someone might innocently think they're making a real effort, when some less day-to-day change (switching from in person to Skype-based conferences, say) is the one that would actually make a difference.

PG said...

I don't think same-sex marriage is comparable because I have no idea what I would have to sacrifice for people to marry someone of the same sex. Indeed, it seems inherently to increase my range of options, even if as a heterosexual I am unlikely to make use of it.

Government regulation, in contrast, has the direct effect of artificially reducing one's options, though it may indirectly lead to innovation and a set of options that didn't exist at all prior to the regulation. I thus find it far more rational for individuals concerned about their short-term self-interest to oppose increased regulation than to oppose decreased regulation.

It's also that it's really tough to know what constitutes a big or small effort in terms of actual change to the environment.

2 things:

(1) If it's just a question of information, the government (or private bodies such as the Sierra Club) can disseminate such information to those who voluntarily wish to reduce their environmental impact.

(2) Government regulations are very often not what would actually have the greatest impact on the goal, but what will be most tolerated and easiest to enforce. Reducing the speed limit nationwide to 50mph would probably be far more effective for highway safety than mandatory airbags, and more effective for maximizing fuel-efficiency than mandating a minimum 18mpg for any passenger vehicle. While people in other states probably don't consider driving as fast as possible to be a God-given right the way Texans do (reducing the speed limit below 70mph became a major issue in a gubernatorial election several years ago, such that both candidates eventually had to pledge to oppose a reduction), we still don't have a sensible limit of that sort because, again, too much opposition. It's a lot easier to make manufacturers do something (install airbags, sell only fuel-efficient vehicles) than to make consumers do anything.

Phoebe said...

PG,

-Same-sex marriage is not identical, but it's certainly comparable, in that both could mean the gov't stepping in to change the status quo despite a large portion of the country remaining unconvinced. That's all I was getting at, at least.

-This is something I'll have to think about, whether some official, can't-miss-it document/website, from the government, outlining what matters, would be enough to at least get things started. It wouldn't hurt - it would at least address the 'I care, my kitchen spray is organic' set.

-No, not more car-stuff! Once the topic is cars, I can speculate but will only be putting my foot right into my mouth.

Sigivald said...

Removing all SUVs would not stop "climate change", even if we grant that it's driven largely by human CO2 emissions (which I don't, but arguendo...).

If we want to get serious about CO2 emissions, the thing to do is to build a lot of nuclear power plants and stop burning coal.

(2008 consumption being 1.1 billion tons of coal in the US, 93% of which was used to make electrical power.

Looking at the EPA figures on emission, transportation is a close second to electrical generation (and roughly equal to the coal consumption part alone).

The difference being, we can stop using coal, but we can't - especially without a lot more power generation beforehand - stop using fossil fuels for transport.

Even with a total ban on SUVs, notionally, the differences in fuel use compared to now would be completely and totally marginal.

That is the best reason to oppose SUV restrictions or bans - they're utterly ineffective policy and thus smug posturing [at least by those who know better; plenty of people just hear all the complaints and assume they must have a rational basis rather than being a signaling effort].)

Phoebe said...

Sigivald,

I don't assume anything re: the relative damage of SUVs, say, and coal. My point, in fact, is that the typical consumer doesn't know what does or doesn't actually matter. Yes, I should educate myself more on this topic, but that doesn't answer the broader question of consumers not knowing what matters how much.

PG said...

So I was guessing correctly about Sigivald's views on AGW.

Sigivald's comment goes back to what I said about whether a particular government regulation is necessarily the most effective means of reaching a goal. If people would rather decrease our use of energy without substituting toward more nuclear power (which doesn't affect CO2 but is potentially problematic for the environment for other reasons), then regulating SUVs like the passenger vehicles they really are, reducing the total amount of energy we consume (often indirectly, e.g. by eating a lot of meat and imported food), substituting toward energy sources that at worst chop up a few seagulls, etc. will be more palatable because they don't harm the environment. If your only concern about the environment is CO2, yeah, nuclear power. If you have a more multi-faceted concern, it's not that simple. (Surprise!)

Phoebe said...

PG,

I'm once again brought back to the question of what we, idiot consumers like myself, do and don't know. Take food - is imported worse? There's the whole thing about Californian wine being eco-worse in NY than French. Is it better to buy a Vermont cheese that had to be trucked than a French one that was shipped? How much of a difference do such decisions make, relative, say, to overconsumption generally (say, not finishing the cheese, domestic or imported)? Does the fetishization of local encourage overconsumption of socially-acceptable meat (which, depending the cut, is not always all that expensive) as versus evil evil out-of-state vegetables? What if production methods for some - but not all - foods are more wasteful if done near big cities? I'm asking these questions not because it would be impossible for the committed individual to figure this out, but because there's no general knowledge about what makes how much of a difference, nothing for the consumer who kind of cares, but doesn't want to turn it all into a research project. So even if we drop the touchy question of government intervention, there could perhaps be some kind of government labeling.

PG said...

I know you want to back away from the automotive industry, but if you're interested in government labeling, cars might be a good model. They have to meet a minimum standard for fuel efficiency, but beyond that consumers can choose for themselves. That choice is informed by required labeling on new vehicles of average miles per gallon in city and in highway driving.

Theoretically you could have the government mandate a similar labeling of how much fuel was expended to bring a particular item to a particular market. However, your example of California vs. French wine comes close to one of the difficulties in such labeling: alcohol is treated a little differently, but for the most part there is an un-barriered flow of goods among the states within the U.S. While it might be reasonable to demand that someone importing from overseas account for the amount of fuel used/CO2 released in the process (and there's clear points of entry at which federal government officials interact with the importers), it's going to be much more difficult to do so within the U.S., since there's no one waiting at the NY-NJ border to inspect a trucker's load.

If we only enforce labeling for imported goods, this seems likely just to give an advantage to U.S. producers, and in turn start fights at the World Trade Organization about the U.S. really doing this as a protectionist, anti-free trade measure in the guise of environmental awareness.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I was responding to your earlier comment re: "imported food." If it really must remain unknown, at least within the US, which consumption is worse than which other consumption, given so many factors we'd have to take into account, only some of which are obvious from the item and its provenance (meat vs. plant, efficiency of production, means of transportation, distance shipped), it seems a problem to just say 'it's up to the consumer,' when even a well-meaning consumer won't know what's what. I mean, aside from suspecting that farmers' market turnips are the only eco-friendly choice all winter long, what choices make sense? This is not intuitive, and not everyone will or should make this a personal research project.

My point with these comments is not to win an argument, but to figure out what makes sense here. If not gov't regulation or labeling, some kind of voluntary explanation of what takes what into account? Or just kind of buy whatever, using extremely crude rubrics to guess what's more 'green'?

PG said...

I didn't think I was trying to win an argument so much as point out the difficulties in having the government provide the information you say people would like to have if it isn't too much trouble. There seems to be a lot of information from non-governmental organizations about what people ought to buy, and while some of it may conflict with what others say, people can pick which sources align with their values. (E.g. supposting Sigivald did believe in AGW and otherwise didn't care about the environment, he would know not to bother changing anything until we converted to nuclear power, because until then, what difference would it make?)

Phoebe said...

PG,

Even if we just stick with the example of food and the environment, which I do know something about and have read a good amount about, it's still not clear which choices are how evil, or how much any of the 'little things add up' things matter.

PG said...

which choices are how evil, or how much any of the 'little things add up' things matter.

This sounds almost like a religious or moral question. If one is aware that something is evil and that it can be avoided without much cost to oneself, why not just avoid it instead of trying to measure "how evil"? Or is the idea that you have a particular food budget within which to afford certain green things but not others (e.g. if you drink local milk you can't also afford locally grown veg), and so you want to minimize your environmental impact within that budget?

Because certain hierarchies seem clear enough: that which is produced very nearby will require less energy for transport than something produced halfway around the world; that which is meat or dairy will, all other things being equal, have consumed more energy and created more waste than something that isn't; that if you walk/bikeride/public transport to the market, it's better to buy a few small quantities at a time of things that spoil so that you don't waste them; etc.

I suppose because for me all of this seems far more a matter of will than of knowledge (yes, it would be nice to be a vegan, but I lack the necessary self-denial), instilling the will in people seems a far more pressing project than creating an overall hierachy of evil food. I *know* it's wasteful to buy all my groceries once a week, but it's so much easier to be wasteful than to schlep to a grocery three times a week. And I live within a mile of both a Morton Williams and a Whole Foods.

Phoebe said...

PG,

The differences you mention are not so straightforward. Is local better? All things equal yes, but all things are not equal, even removing the obvious (steak vs. broccoli). If anything, well-meaning consumers might be spending too much on that which they mistakenly think makes the most difference. (Organics might be an example of this.) I suppose what I've been getting at here all along re: smug is that without a clear sense of what matters how much, some people get very proud of themselves for making certain choices that might not matter so much, when ones that might matter more are just less obvious/glamorous, even if they also turn out to cost less/be less of an inconvenience.