Put away your Eco-Guilt

Monbiot again a couple of weeks ago:

For years we’ve been told that people cannot afford to care about the natural world until they become rich; that only economic growth can save the biosphere, that civilisation marches towards enlightenment about our impacts on the living planet. The results suggest the opposite.

Who has been telling us this “for years” ? Monbiot neglects to tell us- perhaps it is just made up. I assumed however that he was referring to Goklany’s Environmental Transition.

In the early stages of development the primary aim is – as would be expected – promoting growth. But as countries become wealthier they can afford to broaden their focus. ‘The richer a country, the greater its ability to do something about environmental concerns,’ says Goklany. ‘And the reason is simple – they have the economic infrastructure and the human capital to do something about it.’ In effect, the richer countries have the ability to buy themselves a better environment.

According to this theory, nations tend to clean up their act as they get wealthier- once the immediate needs of food and housing and medicine are catered for, there are resources available for cleaning the air and the water. This theory is modeled using the Environmental Kuznets Curve which shows the theoretical point at which despoiling the environment to power growth gives way to that same growth being used to improving the environment. No one who has traveled in a developing country would claim I think that they generally have cleaner air or cleaner water. You only have to compare the air quality of Beijing with that of London to see a striking example. London no longer has the pea-soupers of the 1940s and 50s, but Beijing- which is at a comparable stage of development to London 50 years ago – lives in a permanent and deadly pea soup. Will China be able to use some of its new-found wealth to clean the air so its citizens can go out without face-masks? Time will tell.

The visually sumptuous film Perfume- the Story of a Murderer has a fascinating behind the scenes short on the DVD which I watched a few years ago. In order to replicate the street scenes in the first part of the movie of 18th Century Paris, an entire department had to work for weeks to produce enough pure unadulterated knee-deep filth. The EPA would never allow this these days- and nor would citizens of the developed nations.

This is not to say there is some kind of inevitable straight-line process of development through these stages. As Yandle et al suggest (pdf)

Saying all this may tempt one to think that higher incomes alone will solve most environmental problems. Unfortunately, life is not that simple. If it were, transfers of income from richer to poorer societies—through foreign aid, for example—would enable the recipients to avoid environmental destruction. The movement along an environmental Kuznets curve is also a movement through a well-known set of property rights stations.

Wealth and growth are necessary- but not sufficient in themselves- to guarantee a cleaner environment.

Tim Worstall has already pointed out that it is what people do, not what they say they care about, that counts:

We might change out minds a little bit about this if we are to talk of climate change: for it is true that emissions from people living in the rich world are higher than of those living in the poor. But do also note what is happening: we rich world people are putting in place the expensive plans required to lower those emissions. Feed in tariffs, cap and trade, carbon taxes: whether you want to “take climate change seriously” or not is entirely up to you. But there’s absolutely no doubt that it is us in the places that apparently don’t care about it that are actually doing things about it.

Another example of this with regard to climate change is shale gas: rich world innovation has resulted in the development of cleaner shale gas which has succeeded- in the US at least- where treaties and carbon caps and taxes have so far failed: an overall reduction in CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, most of the increase in CO2 is coming from the still-developing world who rely on cheaper coal to drag themselves out of poverty.

Worstall has looked before at this issue, pointing out that in the IPCC reports, some of their scenarios actually show the highest growth leading to the lowest emissions.

We don’t have to stop economic growth at all, we can quite happily have around the same amount of it that we had in the 20 th century. So that’s a large number of the Green Miserablists shown to be wrong. We don’t have to reduce or even severely limit our energy consumption: we just have to get the growth in our consumption from other than the usual sources. A large number of the Energy Miserablists shown to be wrong there too.

It is not even just how clean the environment becomes however, but the further up Maslow’s hierarchy we climb, the more likely we are to become environmentalists. As Shellenberger and Nordhaus so perceptively point out in their book Breakthrough, environmentalism is not a reaction against modern industrial society, but a product of it.

All this should make Mr. Monbiot very happy, but no, it is not enough for the eco-zealot and True Believer: for them, it is not enough to do good deeds if you do not also feel a suitable amount of Eco-Guilt. However, if you go around asking people to tell you for a survey how much they care, different cultures may tell you very differently without any correlation necessarily to how much they are actually doing. A rich society with a very clean environment for example may list their environment low on a list of concerns simply because it is already fairly well looked after. Equally, in a different culture, asking you to rate your eco-guilt could very well be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The peasant farmer who has to feed and cook for her children today and tomorrow and every day will slash and burn for short-term gain, and even cut down the last tree in sight if needs be, while richer societies have more energy-dense fuels that actually allow them to preserve wilderness. There is similarly plenty of evidence that early humans caused plenty of environmental degradation, probably including species extinction. Protecting endangered species does seem to be a modern invention, and not mainly because there was no need in the past.

Monbiot’s Rewilding project- while worthy and interesting in itself- unfortunately seems to me to barely hide his misanthropy. He reminds me of a modern Thoreau, who idealized Nature while still having his Mum do his laundry.

It is quite right that we should want a clean environment and use some of our wealth to protect wild nature, but surely we can do this without the need to look down our noses at the hoi-polloi who like to do a bit of shopping as well.


5 thoughts on “Put away your Eco-Guilt

  1. HI Graham…interesting piece….I like the outright call against guilt, an emotion that is rarely of any use at all…and it seems perfectly logical what you map out as a “journey towards ecological conciousness” in relation to this so called growth…I am wondering if, whilst our wealth enables us to concern ourselves with lofiter thoughts about the environment and gives us access to more information about the implications of our actions and some means to act towards the protection of he environment, it also gives us a very sharp reminder that our very wealth is a product of environmental destruction, that it couldn’t have occurred without it, that we have set up an incredibly complicated system which is intrinsically based on a world view that sees the environment as a purely functional, material object. I wonder if what you name as guilt is just a surface emotion for what might well be a great sense of loss, despair, confusion, disconnection, the awareness that we are living in a contradiction of gigantic proportions which at times gives us the impression of being trapped and powerless, and that our actions are just like the proverbial piss in the ocean.
    I am concerned about your last comment about shopping, it reads to me like “don’t worry about it, all is well actually and you can carry on as usual”….hopefully that is not what ou meant to say, whilst I don’t think looking down on anybody is a very useful and productive attitude, I think a very thorough questioning of ourselves as individuals and society is in order, and on an ongoing basis.
    Hope you are well,

    • Hello Tatiana! nice to hear from you sand thanks for dropping by Skepteco!

      we have set up an incredibly complicated system which is intrinsically based on a world view that sees the environment as a purely functional, material object

      But I think the whole point of the environmental transition theory is that in wealthy societies, our world view is NOT based PURELY on seeing the environment as purely functional… Everyone wants to live in a clean environment, once we have come out of poverty this becomes much more of a priority, but before then- ie for most of human history- the environment was a hostile and fearful place which it was very hard to make a living from- hence lives were much shorter than they are today, death from disease and hunger were commonplace and infant mortality was very high. So the point is, it is only now from the relatively new experience of wealth and security that we can even have this discussion.

      what you name as guilt is just a surface emotion for what might well be a great sense of loss, despair, confusion, disconnection, the awareness that we are living in a contradiction of gigantic proportions…

      Again, Monbiot’s point is that people are NOT feeling enough guilt in his view! Perhaps they don’t really need to, ie the environment is not as bad as is being made out, and it is hardly surprising that people have more immediate concerns with regard to the economy etc.. Yes ofcourse there has been environmental destruction to power growth, but this has always been the case. If we used the technology of the hunter gatherer to support modern populations we would cause far MORE destruction- as Matt Ridley says, “a return to Nature would be a disaster for Nature.” So on a per capita basis our impact on the environment is not so much compared to earlier times. The way to continue the improvement is to use more efficient technologies such as nuclear energy, precision agriculture including GMOs etc..

      I think that Monbiot’s eco-guilt is however very widespread, but is misplaced, substituting perhaps for the loss of traditional religions which were based on guilt. I think the loss, despair confusion comes from this misplaced guilt, and a great deal of misinformation about the environment.

      Basically yes we can carry on as usual, and ofcourse even if we were to stop, the billions in China, South America and SE Asia are right behind us, coming out of poverty and then, later perhaps, cleaning up their environments.
      Personally I hate shopping but I did buy a new shirt a few weeks ago, the first in about 2 years! Worry is really the other side of guilt and equally useless. This is the real down-side of wealth: neurosis. No amount of “thorough questioning” will change the fact that anyone reading this- ie using computers and not living as subsistence farmers- is relatively wealthy and with high consumption and I dont see anyone giving any of this up.

    • ““don’t worry about it, all is well actually and you can carry on as usual”….hopefully that is not what ou meant to say, whilst I don’t think looking down on anybody is a very useful and productive attitude, I think a very thorough questioning of ourselves as individuals and society is in order, and on an ongoing basis.”

      I would say that yes you can keep doing what you are doing. If you think about it, what we are doing is continually decreasing the impact of our action on the environment as well as preserving/bringing back Nature to it’s former glory.

      Look no farther than modern agriculture, which thanks to a steady increase in the use of capital and technology, has brought back hectare upon hectares of once farmland back to Nature!!!!

      This is what we are doing now…so I say yes!!! Let’s keep doing what we are doing.

      “Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing”

  2. Love your work

  3. We need to put the Science back into Environmentalism. I don’t consider myself an environmentalist because of all the subjectives that go into it. Modern environmentalism since Silent Spring has largely been an appeal to emotion rather than using solid objective science. That’s not to say that there is no science at all, but that the emotive portion, “Eco-Guilt”, has largely been at the forefront.
    Carson’s chapter “One in Four” is a prime example of environmentalism playing on emotion rather than objective evidence. She used examples in her book that might even make the Great Pseudoscientists, Giles Seralini, blush. The woman that sprayed DDT then a week later, died from Leukemia. Or the man who sprayed DDT and then died of aplastic anemia. Anyone using example like that of the “dangers” of a chemical, would be laughed all the way out of the Academy, not hailed as a neo-religious hero, to warship and defend at all costs.

    Environmentalists like Carson, Ehrlich and Monbiot are deontological aka true believers. Data doesn’t mean anything unless it confirms their bias, although maybe Monbiot is changing his tune at least publically. Science is based on evidence and data, it’s consequentionalist.

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