Are You An Al Gore Environmentalist?

Al Gore Environmentalist: noun; The type of person who tells everybody else how to save the environment from his air-conditioned 10,000 square foot mansion.

Over the past few months I've been paying closer attention to virtue signalling behavior. And in the domain of environmentalism we see lots and lots of it.

There are studies for example, that show that people make green purchases primarily to signal their status and "morality" to others. Or worse, when people feel they're being observed, they are significantly more likely to buy an environmentally-friendly or green product, but when not watched they default to a standard product. And worse still, they make their environmentally wasteful and consumerism-based purchases quietly, at home, online, where nobody can see.

True virtue is practiced in private, out of sight of others. Virtue practiced in public is always compromised, at least to some extent, by the fact that you get credit and status by your "virtue" being seen. And of course this becomes pure pseudo-virtue if you practice contrary behaviors when you think no one's looking.

Al Gore's problem lay in the fact that it's awfully tough to conceal a gigantic mansion. Or the fact that at one point he had the single highest residential electric and gas bill in the entire state of Tennessee, at some $30,000 a year in power usage. Practicing pseudo-virtue at this level is risky: eventually someone's going to discover the inconvenient truth and point out the yawning chasm between what you preach and what you practice.

Al Gore-ism is perhaps the worst form of hypocrisy. But even more galling is the implicit truth that some people get to make the rules, rules that are somehow totally optional for them. Not for us though.

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terpsma said...

I like your article. Reminds me of Jesus's criticism of the Pharacies and their public displays of piety that was not genuine.

Daniel said...

Yes. In a lot of ways, environmentalism is kind of like a religion, complete with daily rituals, public demonstrations of "piety," gradations of orthodoxy, etc.


Marcia said...

A few things to note about this, though I don't disagree *in general*

- timing matters. When did he buy the mansion, and when did he make the film? A lot of people "come to Jesus" so to speak, after the deed has been done.

- His house also functioned as a home office for both Al and Tipper, so a direct comparison to a "home" is a bit inaccurate. One would want to factor in the typical cost of a business also.

- In 2007 he made a lot of upgrades to make it more "green", like adding solar, a water catchment system, and replacing lightbulbs. Aside from moving out or tearing down the house, there is not much more you can do with a home of a certain size.

- Pointing out the *cost* of his electricity bill is a bit erroneous, as he was able to decide what type of power to purchase. When possible, he chose "green" sources of energy, which are more costly. A fairer comparison would be total power usage.

A lot of people are "blind" to their own hypocrisies. But also, many others have this standard of "perfection", and will denigrate someone who is not perfect. The world is not perfect. Perfect is easy though. Better to completely ban some things rather than find a middle ground. Middle grounds are HARD, whether we are talking politics, energy, diet, or whatever.

There are plenty of environmentalists who have more than two children, who drive gas guzzling cars, who use plastic bags and disposable water bottles. But caring about the environment doesn't mean only one thing, or being perfect at every single thing. It's a process. It's doing your best.

But it's pretty common for people to pick apart others, when they don't like the message. Because it's easier than discussing the actual message, and data, and science, and philosophy.

Michael Goldsman said...

So is your personal take on environmentalism (or as I like to call it: "science"): you agree with the goals of environmentalism, but it's main proponents are hurting the message by moralizing and they could have better results by just doing things privately and not publicizing it so much? Or do you think the main tenants of environmentalism are incorrect? (protecting endangered species, genetic diversity, working to reduce CO2 emissions, clean air/water, preserving wild spaces, etc). I know that's not 0 / 1 question or a simple question!

The problem with the low-hanging-fruit of this (10 year old) story about Al Gore, is that the anti-science mobs use this to assert "Al Gore is a hypocrite, therefore, global warming is a hoax" But perhaps his work to promote awareness of man-made global warming served as a carbon offset for his huge electrical bill? :-) He should have known better - rookie mistake!

If publically expressing an opinion of a moral underpinning to our purchases and behaviors can be dismissed as "moral signalling" - then how can political battles be won? The rules of politics don't follow neat efficient logically perfect statements and behaviors.

(Of course 99.9% of spouting off your beliefs on the internet has NO EFFECT ON ANYONE'S OPINION - this posting included!)

Marcia makes a good point - hypocrisy on some level is hard to avoid. Someone might feel bad about poverty, but buys and owns things they don't strictly "need" - which is a LOT of stuff. You can't be perfect. Remember at the end of Schindler's List how Oskar Schindler felt guilty about all the things he had which he didn't trade away to Nazis to save more Jews? Kind of like that... Isn't anyone who buys anything but a inexpensive car guilty of denying research $'s for cancel? Or $'s to vaccinate children in a developing country? Or the smallest house they could live in? Are you automatically a hypocrite if you believe in a cause and have compassion, but are not willing to give all your money away?

Daniel said...

All good points, I hear it.

But to me it's largely a straightforward question. Environmentalism is a way of life, it's a set of values. So how in the world does it help the environmental movement if one of the best-known cheerleaders of it lives in complete contravention of these values?