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Going Green Makes You Mean … and Distracts You

When doing something is worse than doing nothing
By: Julian Savulescu

According to a study reported in the Guardian, when people feel they have been morally virtuous by saving the planet through their purchases of organic baby food, for example, it leads to the "licensing [of] selfish and morally questionable behaviour", otherwise known as "moral balancing" or "compensatory ethics". The article came under the wonderful heading, “How going green may make you mean.”

How should an ethicist respond to yet another psychological study of human limitations? Some would no doubt argue that personal ethics should global, not local. Living ethically is a way of life, not an individual choice. That ethics should infuse all our choices, etc, etc

That is not my response. The “green movement” has another more significant adverse effect. It is a distraction. Governments and the public lead themselves to believe that they are actually addressing the environmental crisis by turning off lights, recycling and making people feel miserable for taking planes and driving cars. But they are doing little for the environment, while believing that they are saving it. This is a distraction from the real problem. The fate of the environment will now in large part be determined by China and the developing world. Our putting out the recycling will do nothing to change that. But while we feel good about ourselves, we fail to acknowledge the real problems and find solutions. Our ethics makes us feel good about ourselves and (falsely) reassures us that we are addressing the problem.

Toby Ord has identified the failure to give appropriate scale to the problems and solutions in development ( He famously said that it matters more where you give, rather than whether you give because some programmes and charities are fabulously more cost-effective in orders of magnitude. The same applies to our efforts to improve the environment. Most of the things which we currently feel are so important will make little or no difference. And the biggest fish swim free.

We should not only identify ethical problems and find a solution. We should find the best solution. Too often doing something makes us feel good when we could and should do something else. In ethics, something is not always better than nothing.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. In my experienced, most more informed environmentalists are fully aware of the comparative ineffectiveness of their individual actions, but they continue to recycle etc because a) it’s all they can as individuals do and b) with a desire to inform others. “Too often doing something makes us feel good when we could and should do something else.” What specifically then do you suggest that individuals be doing?

  2. “The fate of the environment will now in large part be determined by China and the developing world. Our putting out the recycling will do nothing to change that.”

    True enough. But isn’t the deeper problem here that “green consumerism” is still, in many (most?) cases, *consumerism*–often of unnecessary stuff? Given that, this predictable finger-pointing at “China and the developing world” seems to overlook the “West’s” contribution to growing environmental problems.

    Perhaps we need a distinction between genuinely “green” people and the “pseudo-green”, to parallel the distinction between green companies and those merely engaging in “green-washing”. It would not at all surprise me that the pseudo-green are jerks, cheats, and fakes.

  3. The discussion of the futility of one or ten or even several thousand people doing greenish things like recycling is very much like the economist’s discussion of voting. A vote is a truly futile act, given the number of votes cast, and is therefore terribly wasteful given the fuel and time taken to go to the polls, wait and then vote, after which one goes somewhere else (where one could have gone directly by skipping the vote). Indeed, since many people drive to vote, it is also earth-unfriendly to vote.

    Yet, people vote. And we praise them. In the American South, much was done to prevent African Americans from voting because, on some matters they were sufficiently like-minded to make their votes count. Perhaps those who vote want to persuade others by their own example. There is also the implicit claim that is made of status in the social system — that of a free and equal citizen.

    I suppose the greenies who recycle are doing so for two reasons. When one is convinced of a particular ideology, one wants to participate in its rituals. Moreover, that participation is an example to others, one hopes will excite them to do the same thing. Finally, participation in rituals keeps the believers together and keeps them voting according to the ideology.

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