‘Hair shirt’ environmentalism


in Economics, Politics, Science, Security, The environment

Red fire escape stairs

In environmental discussions, I frequently see people deriding ‘hair shirt’ environmentalism: basically, the idea that a sustainable society should involve self-sacrifice. There are libertarian sorts who assert their right to live as they wish, without interference. There are also strategic environmentalists who believe that (a) personal sacrifice is not strictly necessary and (b) only approaches that do not call for it will succeed on a societal level.

In order to get into the analysis of this a bit, I think it makes sense to separate three basic ‘hair shirt’ positions. Each holds that it is either necessary or desirable to cut down on some collection of conveniences:

Conserve or we’re doomed

The people of Easter Island didn’t stop their wars and stone head making because they were guilted into it by hippie sorts. They stopped because their ability to sustain a society failed. Conceivably, this could happen at the level of a contemporary state, a region, or the global society.

This viewpoint includes those who think runaway climate change is a major concern, either because it is likely or because the sheer destructiveness it would bring justifies extensive precaution even in the face of a low chance of occurrence. It also includes those who think that when oil runs out we will (a) be unable to locate adequate replacement forms of energy and (b) that this will make civilization impossible to sustain.

Harm Principle advocates

These people argue that libertarians are wrong to assert that one person’s choice to fly or drive is not the business of others. In particular, there is the welfare of those alive now who are vulnerable to climate change (especially in the Arctic, in megadelta, and in small island states). There is also the matter of future generations, and the argument that it is morally wrong to pass a damaged and diminished world on to them.

For these people, it is fine to keep consuming as much energy and as many goods as desired, provided the mechanisms through which they are produced, used, and ultimately disposed of do not cause morally unacceptable harm to others. Naturally, questions about what types and levels of harm are permissible are contested.

Moral minimalists

This group argues that living a simple life is a virtue unto itself. It is split between those who simply choose to adopt such a life themselves and those who argue that others should or must do likewise. In that sense, they are a bit like vegetarians; some try to convert people willingly, others assert that there is a universal moral requirement to be vegetarian, and some are happy to let others do as they wish.

I don’t think any of the views is entirely correct or entirely incorrect.

I do believe that there are ongoing societal behaviours that run a strong risk of undermining the material basis for society, over the long term. Most critical by far is climate change. Runaway climate change would almost certainly mean the end of human civilization. Avoiding that is both prudent and a strong moral requirement. That being said, it is hard to estimate how the climate will respond to a particular collection of forcings – especially when there are tipping points to consider. It is also hard to predict what future generations will be able to do. It is possible that the end of oil will be a global disaster; it is also possible that the transition to renewable sources of energy will be relatively unproblematic.

I also believe that there are many things people in the rich world do as a matter of course that cause unacceptable harm to those alive today and those who will live. I think this is a strong moral basis for requiring behavioural change, including potentially painful changes like restricting air travel and curtailing harmful forms of agriculture.

The moral minimalists have the weakest case, when it comes to asserting the universal validity of their ideas. That being said, they draw attention to the ways in which changes in societal expectations can have big ecological effects. Think of the way in which the ill treatment of whales and primates has come to be rejected by most people. Similarly, note how nasty bogs to be cleared away have become pristine wetlands to conserve – in people’s imaginations, at least, if not in relation to their behaviour. Changes in the general worldview of a society can certainly affect sustainability: both for good and for ill.

In any case, I don’t think it is legitimate to reject the possibility that ‘hair shirt’ actions will be necessary, either on the basis of individual liberty, non-necessity, or political strategy. The strategy point I will debunk more thoroughly another time. For now, it suffices to say that telling people the transition will be relatively painless leaves you in an awkward position if it transpires that deeper (and less voluntary) changes are required.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

. July 5, 2008 at 12:45 pm

Jeez, that makes sustainability sound like hair shirts and broccoli. Good luck getting people on board with that … it while barely even noticing the changes. No broccoli, no hair shirt — just life as (almost) normal.

But underneath it is always the the hair-shirt: in the creed of those not motivated by greed (lefties … pushed out. So we have a right to wear our hair-shirts as activists and change agents. We have major work cut …

Search Term(s): “hair shirt”

Anon July 6, 2008 at 11:44 am

I think the basic cause of ‘hair shirt’ positions is always one of two things:

1. A Malthusian belief that the planet cannot sustain so many people living like us. The people who say that we are using four Earth’s worth of resources are a prime example.

2. People who have bought into a conservation agenda for whatever reason and are now asserting their superiority. Those who distain drivers fall into this camp.

. July 7, 2008 at 8:55 pm

Very relevant to Malthusian considerations:

Hans Rosling: Debunking third-world myths with the best stats you’ve ever seen

. July 7, 2008 at 9:01 pm

The data visualization is amazing.

. September 2, 2008 at 1:09 pm

Needless to say, some of the world’s more dogmatic environmentalists will object to the whole notion of green shopping as a contradiction in terms. Great Green Goods’s compilers feel obliged to recommend that customers eschew wasteful purchases and “live with less”, despite the orgy of frivolous consumption they are being ushered into.

But Green.view has no qualms on that score. The majority of the world’s citizens are unlikely to be converted to the hair-shirted school of greenery, however laudable it might be. The only alternative is to find greener ways for the rest of us to go about our lives. Selling environmentally friendly versions of everyday goods, whether truly essential or utterly self-indulgent, is an important part of that process.

. September 23, 2009 at 3:56 pm

““Hairshirt-green is the simple-minded inverse of 20th-century consumerism,” argues sci-fi author and futurist Bruce Sterling. “Like the New Age mystic echo of Judeo-Christianity, hairshirt-green simply changes the polarity of the dominant culture, without truly challenging it in any effective way. It doesn’t do or say anything conceptually novel — nor is it practical, or a working path to a better life.” In place of these Thoreauvian hair shirts, Sterling argues for a new frame constructed on the foundation of “sustainability,” broadly defined as that which “navigate[s] successfully through time and space.” Like certain of Jules Verne’s amazing machines, perhaps. Or like any given diver on any old reef, breathing freely underwater.”

. March 13, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Is our quest for environmentally friendly technology going to save the planet from ecological disaster—or just make things worse? That’s the question driving New Yorker writer David Owen’s elegant new book The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse.

Owen’s core argument is not that we shouldn’t try to save the environment. Rather, he says that our focus on technological innovation, particularly efficiency, is misguided. He addresses problems inherent in several favored technologies and strategies, such as solar panels and buy-back programs for older, inefficient vehicles. What will happen if we make more-efficient, more-affordable cars? Owen says that the number of drivers worldwide will skyrocket. Since that “green” car would not be entirely without environmental consequences, the bump in car ownership and driving (since a fuel-efficient car would mean spending less on gas) would likely have a net negative effect.

Instead, he proposes that a truly “green” car might have “no air conditioner, no heater, no radio, unpadded seats, open passenger compartment, top speed of twenty-five miles an hour, fuel economy of five or ten miles a gallon. You’d be able to get your child to the emergency room, but you’d never run over to Walmart for a bag of potato chips, and you’d take public transportation to work.”

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