Monday, September 19, 2011

Environmental Vow: Part 15

Some People's Curious Unwillingness to Admit That Sacrifice Even Exists

There is yet another issue at play that needs to be discussed:  the relationship between “freedom”, “choice” and “sacrifice”.  I think one of the best ways to understand the relationship is to consider the significant fraction of the public that has been so seduced by the ideal of “do your own thing”, that they seem to believe that the concept of personal sacrifice is conceptually impossible.  Primarily, this boils down to the notion that no one ever does anything that they do not want to do simply because if they didn't want to do it, they wouldn't.   This response often comes out in conversations similar to the following one that I once had with a friend after I mentioned to her that I had decided to never fly again.

“Why would you decide to never fly in an airplane?”
“Jet aircraft release a lot of climate changing C02 into the atmosphere, so I've decided that this is a sacrifice I can make for the good of future generations and Mother Nature.”
“No, it's not a sacrifice. You simply choose to not fly.  You're afraid of flying, aren't you?  Don't worry, it's safer than driving a car.”

What I believe is happening in these sorts of situations is that people are confusing several different things for a variety of reasons and on the basis of that confusion jumping to unwarranted conclusions.

It is true that people often do announce that they are making a sacrifice for the greater good when in fact what they really are doing is seeking social recognition and status for their actions.  The corporation that “donates” money to a university but expects public recognition, a tax write-off and demands to set research priorities is an example of this sort of “giving” that really turns out to really be a purchase.   This sort of “sacrifice” is really a very self-conscious act of hypocrisy.  A more subtle, unconscious type of hypocrisy can also cloud sacrifice---as when a grasping parent demands constant attention by children for the “gift” of birth and nurturing until the age of majority.  An even more subtle case involves the sense of self-worth that can come from “doing the right thing” when everyone else isn't.  This sort of behaviour is common in religious organizations and usually labelled “self-righteousness”.   Finally, as in the example above, the “sacrifice” could be an excuse to cover up some other, not necessarily self-serving, reason for following a course of action---such as when my friend assumed that my decision to stop flying was just an attempt to hide my fear.  

In the case of environmental activism, it certainly could be the case that some people in leadership positions are enamoured by the attention they receive from the media and citizenry.  This cannot be a universal phenomenon, however, simply because for every person in a leadership position there needs to be many more who are supporters.  If only a small number of people involved in a situation can bask in the glory, it cannot be the case that everyone is in it for the prestige.  

And the issue isn't just one of activism.  People routinely “do without” in order to support some sort of higher ideal.  For example, a woman who has a child doesn't “want” to go through childbirth, have her sleep constantly interrupted or clean dirty diapers, yet she does these things willingly because they are necessary if she is to be a mother.  They are undesired yet necessary means to a desired end.   In much the same way, soldiers do not want to advance into battle and all monks have problems with at least some elements of monastic routine---yet they accept that these undesired things are necessary to pursue the desired ones.   In a similar vein, some people do choose to live without an automobile, not fly on airplanes, eat relatively inconvenient and expensive locally-grown, organic food, etc, because they think that the act is in defence of Mother Nature.

Yet, like my friend, many people are loathe to admit this.  I suspect that they often do so for two reasons.  First of all, if they admit that they didn't actually like doing the unpleasant means that they already do, they might feel that they are betraying the desired end.  In the case of a mother, she might feel that she is betraying her child if she admits that it isn't much fun washing dirty diapers.   Secondly, if a person admits that people do often do unpleasant things in order to pursue some other desired end, an implicit moral imperative comes into play.  When Henry David Thoreau went to jail rather than pay taxes in support of what he considered an unjust war (against Mexico) a visitor asked him why he was behind bars.  Thoreau's response was to turn the tables on the questioner and ask him “Why aren't you in here with me?”

This raises another important point.   When I brought up Cicero's definition of “freedom” as participation in power, I suggested that the relevant issue is engagement in the process.   I went on to suggest that the emotional connection with the community that comes from engaging with it has a lot to do with the experience of living a “free” life.  I would also suggest that there is an other element of engagement that needs to be considered:  personal responsibility.

A lot of people understand “freedom” in terms that take out any sense of personal responsibility.  That is, “freedom” for them is just another aspect of consumerism---like when you wander down the isle of a grocery store and have to choose between Coke and Pepsi.   This sort of consumer “choice” is totally value-free because there is little (if any) difference between the two options.  Both are  carbonated sugar-water beverages flavoured with cola nut extract, produced by multinational corporations and packaged in disposable aluminium cans.   There are consequences to both a person's health and to the environment (both negative) if a person decides to purchase either one of these products, but there is none at all over which particular brand.   If you look at people's lives, you find that even though North Americans have an enormous ranges of choices in their lives, the practical impact of those choices is limited---mother nature and your liver don't care whether you purchase Count Chocola, GMC and a split level as opposed to Lucky Charms, Chrystler and a ranch style.

This type of choice wouldn't be a problem but it has become so ubiquitous in our consumer society that many people confuse this “choosing” with the sort of important morally-based decisions that we have to make as both individuals and a society.   This leads to a conflation of the idea of consumer choice with democratic referendum.  Consider the sort of routine arguments that come about from public planning.  If the city suggests that suburban sprawl damages the economic and environmental viability of the community, and therefore zoning should be changed to force higher-density development, at least some members of the community will start arguing that developers “only build what people want” and if “people wanted higher density, they'd build it”.   This argument totally misses the point that the benefits from living in a low-density suburb go to the individuals that bought the home whereas the costs (such as increased infrastructure expenses) are paid for by the entire community.  

In situations like the planning of cities, freedom as “participation in power” involves getting the entire community involved in the process through elected representatives and hired staff who are expected to think about the good of the entire community.  In contrast, freedom as “consumer choice” narrows the terms of reference to “what's in it for me?”   Amongst other things, freedom as “consumer choice” is freedom devoid of any personal responsibility for the consequences of your individual decision.  “Participation in Power”, in contrast, suggests some sort of engagement with the wider community (i.e. the other people “participating”) that places a burden on the individual to think of the consequences of his decisions on these other people (and, by extension, the community of nature.)

Almost all environmental decisions suffer from this confusion of consumer choice and free choice because almost all environmental problems are the result of choices in the way people live their lives.  If we continue to labour under the assumption that being able to live “freely” ultimately means not having to think about how the impact of those choices will affect other people, it is hard to see how anything at all can ever be done to avoid ultimate and total catastrophe.   In effect, if the world is going to deal with the environmental crisis and remain a democracy, people are going to have to make personal individual sacrifices in how they live their lives.  As Mohandas Gandhi would have said, people are going to have to learn how to “Live simply that others may simply live.”


shadowplay said...

This post really resonated with me, but I have one minor quibble:

"In effect, if the world is going to deal with the environmental crisis and remain a democracy..."

Since when has 'the world' or even a majority of the world, been governed by democracy? I know a lot of states use the word 'democracy' (for instance, the People's Democratic Republic of Korea, which is anything but democratic!) but there are few if any regimes out there that allow their citizens real participation in power (as opposed to, say, consumer choice).

I would suggest you change that sentence to "If the world is ever going to become a democracy" or "if we are ever going to actualize democratic principles", something along those lines. You can't remain something that you've never been.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Thanks for pointing out that point. You are quite right, of course.