A few weeks ago I was discussing environmentalism with a colleague. They mentioned how in some ways you could consider a particular centre-right journalist in our city to be a better environmentalist than David Suzuki. The colleague elaborated, explaining that this local journalist walked to work every day and biked as much as possible. They lived in a small, energy-efficient home, despite having the means to afford larger lodging. The journalist reused bags and consistently shopped local, at least as much as is possible in Edmonton.
And David Suzuki? Well, Suzuki’s flying habits alone disqualify him from having a low-carbon footprint (before offsets, but that’s another discussion). Then, one wonders about Suzuki’s home, driving habits, shopping habits, and so on. Sure, Suzuki preaches well about the importance of living a low impact lifestyle but how long do we listen after he flies off to a conference to warn against fuel consumption?
Of course, Suzuki is far from alone in being snared by hypocrisy. Take a high profile climate activist like actor Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio is known for his lavish use of yachts and private jets, in addition to a generally high consumption lifestyle. This is clearly at odds with his climate advocacy, isn’t it? How can DiCaprio or Suzuki call themselves environmentalists when they have such large carbon footprints themselves?
Then again, who are we to pretend that either Suzuki’s or DiCaprio’s carbon footprints make any difference on their own? They clearly don’t in a world with 7.5 billion people. When we change our patterns we are not doing so in isolation, we are doing so as part of an interconnected web. We change our behaviour for reasons of principle and because we hope that others will do the same.
It’s the same as voting. Some rational choice theorists have argued that voting is fundamentally irrational. The probability that any individual’s vote will make a difference (i.e. decide an election) is so infinitesimal as to not justify the “cost” of voting. However, we still vote nonetheless. We vote because we want others to do so too. We vote because we want to be empowered and engaged. We vote because we feel that it’s the right thing to do and in this way, we justify the “cost” of voting. Because doing the right thing is worth the price, even if our actions alone won’t change things.
Turning back to environmentalism, is it so wrong if Suzuki’s carbon footprint is larger than most if through his advocacy work he inspires others to lower theirs on a larger scale? Doesn’t this more than offset his mild hypocrisies? Doesn’t it even render them un-hypocritical, considering that this is about large-scale systemic pattern changes? These are the hard questions with which we must wrestle in dealing with celebrity environmentalists.
Yet in the end, this debate about celebrity environmentalists is really about ourselves. Only we use celebrities as avatars to discuss our behaviour in a more comfortable, detached manner. It’s easier for us to critique and dissect someone we know without knowing than to face their patterns in ourselves. So when I write about celebrity environmentalists, let me be very clear, I am talking about all environmentalists. The difference simply lies in the profile and power that these celebrities wield. It’s a difference of degree, not a difference of type.
When a celebrity environmentalist exhibits some hypocrisy it makes us feel like our efforts are undermined. That if they can’t live their convictions, there’s little hope for others. Yet, do we really hold ourselves to the same standards? Should we? If we’re striving by steps to make the world better, oughtn’t we have a little room for failure? As Christian Barnard writes; “the demand that activists practice what they preach in all cases serves to impose a special moral burden on those who rouse themselves to the improvement of society.”
The frustration of it notwithstanding, hypocrisy does nothing to disprove an argument. You may feel that it undermines a person’s authority since it implies a lack of integrity but it certainly doesn’t make them wrong. It’s the same with someone you don’t like; you are probably less inclined to accept what they say is true, however irrational that might be. You’re less receptive to them as a person but that doesn’t make their arguments any less meritorious.
If you’ve ever charged someone with being biased as a reason they’re wrong, you’ve committed the same fallacy. I know I’ve done this. The presence of bias doesn’t make someone wrong though, it is just a potential reason they might be, or more specifically, a reason they might be employing motivated reasoning. The bias isn’t discrediting in itself, it’s what the bias may reveal. The same is true with hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy doesn’t make someone wrong. Sure it may indicate something wrong with what they’re saying but by no means is that a given. As this Scientific American article puts it, hypocrisy may be an indication of the opposite. The article gives the example of Al Gore, who despite his climate activism also uses a private jet. Yet this usage may actually reinforce his argument that we are societally dependent on fossil fuels and the associated forms of transportation. His hypocrisy may just bolster his advocacy for large-scale systems change. If it’s too hard for Al Gore to do reduce his carbon footprint in our current system, then we really must need to shake things up!
Beyond the perils of hypocrisy, celebrity environmentalists can also easily be perceived as elitist. Norman Borlaug is the father of the Green Revolution which is estimated to have saved 1 billion people from starvation, the highest number of people saved by any person in history. Borlaug did this through developing more durable, high yield crops and spreading these crops to poor, hungry, developing countries in the 20th century.
Some environmentalists criticized Borlaug for benefitting big agricultural companies in the process, developing very resource-hungry crops, and for spreading monocultures. All of these criticisms are valid, but what they missed was the all-important factor of human suffering. As Borlaug put it: “some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals”
I think that the quote above cuts to the heart of why we can have so much trouble with celebrities of any kind, whether they’re environmentalists or not. In fact, it’s broader than celebrities or nebulous “elites” (this word is in quotations for a very specific reason). It’s about privilege. Someone with privilege, like David Suzuki, lecturing us about how to live and then going on to contradict that, despite all of his resources sparks resentment. Of course it does. It feels as though someone is implicitly saying “hey, I’m better than you. I know how you should live, don’t mind how I live.” But I think this implication is wrong. Sure, sometimes celebrity environmentalists are being elitists, like Borlaug’s quote suggests. The same way that hypocrisy sometimes does undermine a person’s argument.
I just don’t think that’s the case for most celebrity environmentalists, and I don’t think that’s the case with Suzuki. Celebrities will get trapped in their own worlds sometimes and not realize that what they’re saying is out of touch with how most people live. That much is certain. Yet, the conviction behind what they’re saying may be completely sincere. Elitism is simply “the advocacy or existence of an elite as a dominating element in a system or society.” So our “elitist” concern with celebrity environmentalists is really that they seem to lack the empathy to understand our situation or the situation of another regular person. They don’t get why we can’t simply stop eating meat or driving to work. They live privileged lives and have ample resources, of course it’s easy for them to make those changes.
It’s at this point that I return to what I wrote earlier; that our discussions about celebrity environmentalists aren’t really about celebrity environmentalists, they are about us. We so often lack empathy when looking at the lives of strangers. Actually, we often lack empathy when looking at the lives of those we know too. We may admonish a developing country that is rapidly ramping up fossil fuel consumption, not realizing that this is one of the only options for a poor country to provide power and easy transportation options for its citizens. When we put the effort in to understand another’s story we are better positioned to help them solve their problems, instead of simply rebuking them.
It’s really hard to blame a developing country for wanting to use fossil fuels to boost its economic fortunes when developed countries have taken and still stake full advantage of them. Trying to understand their perspectives as much as possible will lead to better solutions. Say, the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund, for example, through which developed countries contribute financial support for the climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts of developing countries.
When we talk about celebrity environmentalists let’s be clear that we’re talking about ourselves. Maybe then we’ll treat them with a little more grace and empathy, just like we ought to be treating each other.