2010 March 21 Sunday
Beware Of Morally Unscrupulous Environmentalists
Greenies can't be trusted.
The Guardian newspaper picked this up recently, and it also makes an appearance in the most recent issue of Conservation magazine: people who buy green products may be, on the whole, more likely to steal and cheat when given the chance.
This claim comes by way of two researchers at the University of Toronto, who were probing a more widely known psychological phenomenon in which people who pat themselves on the back for a good deed often feel entitled to a bit of selfishness later on.
Imagine a guy buying a Toyota Prius as a way to convince himself it is okay to kill his wife. Or a married woman will buy a refrigerator with an Energy Star EPA rating to help her justify starting to cheat on her husband. And trash recycling? How much tax fraud and plagiarism have those green trash cans caused?
If you consider the massive effort required to maintain this blog, you realize that you would be considered a far bigger candidate for someone who considers themselves "doing good" that someone merely buying green toothpaste?
In "Super Freakonomics," Levitt and Dubner point out how the Law of Unintended Consequences works. Take the Environmental Protection Act, designed to protect endangered species. In some cases, this has caused landowners to destroy habitat that might be suitable for an endangered species out of fear of the environmental police. Or consider the Americans With Disabilities Act, intended to prevent discrimination against disabled Americans. This has resulted in certain employers refusing to hire the disabled, on the grounds that it will be costly to attempt to discipline or fire them (yes, such refusal to hire is also illegal but more difficult to prove). In Germany, a tax on unrecycled garbage, designed to conserve landfills, caused the Germans to flush uneaten food down their toilets. The result? An explosion of the rat population in the sewers.
Now I don't mean to imply that these laws were bad. Clearly, no one wants to destroy endangered species, discriminate against the handicapped or unnecessarily fill up landfills. It's just that human behavior is hard to change by legislation.
You know, if I recall, that study is somewhat different than how it is typically portrayed (greenies are more evil than nongreens), and frankly, scarier.
They randomly selected people to be the greenies---giving them money to spend in some greenie place---and others to get money to spend in a Walmart-like place. The green purchasers had no previous statistical prediliction to be greenies.
The greenies then behaved more selfishly and less honestly. Why is that?
My estimation is that each person has a set point that they want to hold their self image at. You can call it a 'law of conservation of wickedness or righteousness' if you like. By acting out the green rituals, they then felt that they'd been 'good', and accordingly had more wickedness available to spend on other, more important things. Looked at in this light, a lot of ritualistic crap, like sorting recycling, turning off the sink while brushing teeth, etc may actually be causing a LOT of social harm.
I have definitely noticed that my Liberal friends are more likely to cheat on little things than my conservative friends. Things such as not paying for something when the honor system is in place, or cheating on their income taxes, or parking in places where it isn't allowed. I've also noticed that Liberal celebrities seem to be more personally mean than non-Liberal celebrities.
The "ritualistic crap" would only be a problem if people felt forced to do it. What if it has benefits, like saving on the water bill? Even if there is no saving, what happens when it is just something everybody does? Do people feel forced to use deodorant?
If acting out after "ritualistic crap" is a problem, the worst culprits are probably churches.