Freud would have a fun time with a modern day college environmentalist.
Why? OK. I’ll illustrate my answer with an example from our campus: the Environmental Alliance. My freshmen year, the EA launched their annual “Take Back the Tap” initiative. They went around to freshmen dorms, asked people to take a survey on their energy use and gave free steel water bottles upon completion.
Now, I think that the EA is comprised of a bunch of extremely well meaning, good people. But let’s look beyond the intention.
Let’s assume that each metal bottle is made in Asia with roughly three pounds of steel and that each water bottle bought on campus is a filled, plastic half-liter bottle. It takes significantly more energy to produce a reusable, steel bottle than it does to produce a plastic bottle, which means that you would have to fill up the reusable bottle many times to justify the difference between its carbon footprint and that of a disposable plastic bottle.
So that’s probably a few weeks of filling up at the tap. Maybe one, if you’re disciplined. But it’s not that simple.
Research by our own Dan Ariely shows that when things are offered for free, they are gluttonously taken. So the students who accept the water bottle may not actually find it relevant. Now think—would you use a product that you found irrelevant many times in a row? What if that meant carrying around a sizeable weight with you? Especially when you could buy replacements for it with food points that you’re incentivized to use?
What’s more likely is that students who already care about the environment end up with another reusable bottle. So the EA spent sizeable effort on delivering these steel bottles, but it’s not clear to me that anyone’s habits were changed. Certain economic policies, meanwhile, are wildly successful. Washington, D.C.’s plastic bag tax, for instance, reduced plastic bag consumption by about two thirds from 2009 to 2010. The University certainly makes some economic decisions based on student pressure, so why didn’t the EA just spend the time lobbying for a bottled water tax? Or better yet, a bottled water ban?
Because that’s the problem with student environmentalists. It’s easy—far to easy— to assume that work and positive impact are linearly related. They’re not. Following one’s heart and simply reacting on an “ethical” level to the negative implications of what one sees around them simply won’t do it. Not only will this not have the biggest impact it could, but also it could lead one to work harder and harder to achieve desired impact.
And that’s where the real danger lies.
When activists throw themselves into this “ethical” type of work without thinking about efficiency, the risk of closing oneself off to a more efficient way grows. This breeds cynicism, as the impact one desires remains unfulfilled.
That’s when it’s easy to become righteous and hypocritical. Just like feminist arguments can veer toward man-hating, environmentalist arguments can verge on people-hating.
I ask the campus environmentalists to step back from their work and re-evaluate. What are they trying to achieve? The slowing of climate change? OK, I understand that. But what about the motivations? Are they fighting for life in general? Are they going for the conservation of what is beautiful? Or are they actually at heart stalwart Republicans who fear change in the things they love?
These motivations are fine. But the biggest folly one can make is to mistake them for tools of action. To articulate these ethical arguments logically, one has to present them in a way that is too moderate or too general to have very much persuasive impact.
And so we move toward the dismal side of things: economics. But economic arguments don’t really need people working hard to spread them around. If an economic argument in favor of something exists, people will probably notice. For instance, imagine that Source A’s electricity is much cheaper then Source B’s. Would you expect more people to switch before they found out that Source A was derived from a wind farm, or after?
Therein lies the crux of the matter. Although environmentalism is at heart an ethical issue, ethical arguments are woefully ineffective compared to practical efforts. Activists, don’t just react to what you recognize as bad. Stop and look around you. Determine what the most practical course of action on the largest possible scale is. And now, while your skills are most malleable and the training ground most forgiving, prepare yourself intellectually for what is to come.
Lucas Spangher is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Friday.