Carbon offsets = good, moral offsets = bad?
Last week Mother Jones brought up a perennial theme in green circles: does buying green products serve as a "get out of jail free" card with the conscience, leading to less responsible behavior overall? So say researchers at the University of Toronto.
In the words of the researchers, "people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products." The theory is that buying green amounts to a "moral offset", making you feel like you can get away with more. By this logic, is it morally preferable to drive a Hummer rather than a Prius because drivers of gas-guzzlers somehow make up for the havoc they wreak upon the planet?
Interestingly, New Dream board member Dr. Juliet Schor led a research project exploring a similar theme, with different results. With a participant pool was limited to New Dreamers the research found:
"More consistent conscious consumption practices are
related to and perhaps predictive of greater informal social activism and formal political activism. "
Download the survey results (pdf).
Of course, all of us have met strict adherents to a moral code, whether ethical or environmental, who might have lived according to their ideals on one level but were not very nice people on another. I wonder, though, whether the Toronto participants' behavior isn't explicable by another means. Those of us who consistently scrutinize our own consumer choices often encounter a type of exhaustion at how difficult it is to live morally and how far the green movement has to go. Did Torotno's conscious consumers read about the scramble to get rich off the new "arctic shortcut" global warming has carved for ships and get so full of despair that they acted out? Did the New Dream study participants have access to some different kind of context that allowed them to translate their buying habits into a more well-rounded engagement with sustainable living? There are no clear answers.
In situations like these, I'm reminded of Gandhi's quote: "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it." Grappling with climate change means struggling with all of the faults, weaknesses, and baggage that helped the human race get into this mess to begin with. We tend to gratify ourselves today at the expense of tomorrow; we cooperate poorly, and without constant reinforcement we tend to lapse back into old habits. I often think that green-minded folk need some type of support group like the twelve-step programs designed to combat other habits dangerous to self and others. Some of the dedicated twelve-steppers I've known have had a very compassionate view of their own tendencies to falter; beating oneself up over failure, or getting too complacent after success, are equally a waste of energy when you're in the business of high-stakes survival. The call to "continue to take moral inventory" is important for all humans; let's not quit moving forward because sometimes we lose some moral ground.