Against Virtue Environmentalism

I came up with the term “Virtue Environmentalism” recently and I think it’s a good one and will probably be using it more often.

This came up when talking to a friend (this really is a thing that happened to a friend, I promise, though some parts of it also apply to me) about a frustrating experience he’d had. Afterwards he vented at me about it for a bit and we had a good conversation on the subject.

The friend in question cares a lot about the environment. He’s mostly vegan and donates a lot of money  to a variety of environmental charities and generally spends a fair bit of time stressing out about global warming.

But he also drives. Like, a lot. And I don’t mean a Tesla (I don’t know enough about cars to tell you about fuel efficiency, but it’s a conventional engine). Both short distance and long road trips. There’s no physical reason he has to drive – he’s in tolerably good shape and could definitely cycle a lot of the places he drives to if he wanted, but he really likes driving.

These aren’t inconsistent positions. I don’t think I was the one who convinced him of this, but he’s basically on board with the idea of donating instead of making personal interventions. He’s decided quite reasonably that his life is significantly better for all this driving that he’s willing to make the trade off, and he donates more than enough to be massively carbon negative despite it even without the veganism.

But someone he met at a party recently really took issue with that, basically calling him a hypocrite. I’m not sure how the subject came up, but it got quite heated.

Over the course of the conversation it emerged that the person in question was not vegetarian and did not donate anything to charity, but was very conscientious about taking public transport everywhere they couldn’t cycle, turning off all the lights, recycling everything, doing home composting, etc.

One of these people is making a big environmental difference. The other one is giving the person who is making a big environmental difference a hard time for not making a big enough difference.

(Note: This account has been somewhat fictionalized to protect the guilty)

I’m going to start describing this behaviour as virtue environmentalism.

The term comes from ethical theory. Approximately, we have consequentialist ethics and virtue ethics (it’s more complicated than that, but that’s the relevant subset here).

Consequentialist ethics says that ethical behaviour comes from acts which produce good outcomes, virtue ethics says that ethical behaviour comes from acts which exhibit virtues.

Similarly, consequentialist environmentalism says that environmentally friendly behaviour comes from acts which produce environmentally good consequences, while virtue environmentalism says it comes from acts which exhibit concern for the environment.

So, donating money to charity is consequentially good but mostly not a virtue – sure, you might as well do it, but it’s not real environmentalism.

My biases are clearly showing here. I largely subscribe to consequentialist ethics, but think virtue ethics has its place. There are good arguments that virtue ethics produces better consequential outcomes in many cases, and also that it produces better adjusted people. I’m not sure I buy these arguments, but it’s a valid life choice.

But virtue environmentalism is mostly bullshit.

Atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gasses are amongst the most fungible types of harm out there. If I pump 100 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere (a very high footprint) and extract 110 from it into some sort of long term storage (e.g. donating to prevent deforestation or plant new trees), then I’ve removed ten tonnes of carbon  from the atmosphere and as a result I’ve done more good than someone who has only pumped 5 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere (a very low footprint) but hasn’t removed any.

Virtue environmentalism largely results in three things:

  1. Spending lots of time and effort on actions that make no practical difference at all but are highly visible.
  2. Feeling good enough about yourself that you don’t perform the actions that would actually help.
  3. Pissing off other people and making them care less about environmentalism overall.

The third is particularly important. If we want our descendants to not gently broil in the inevitable consequences of our own environmental waste, we need to get everyone to start to taking this seriously, and if you keep telling people that the only valid way to do environmental change is this sort of hair-shirt-wearing nonsense then the result will be that people do neither that nor the actually useful actions they would probably be quite happy to do.

If you want to do “environmentally friendly” things that don’t help much but make you feel better then sure, go for it. But stop expecting other people to do the same if you actually want to help the planet instead of just feeling good about yourself.

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