The unbearable hypocrisy of being an ecologist*

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Mark Vellend.

Over the holiday break, my family logged about 2000 km in our gasoline-powered car, loaded with people, luggage, gifts, and ski equipment.  We do something like that four times per year, visiting family east and west.  “Love miles” people call them, and we feel guilty about the carbon emissions, but it’s far less starting from where we live now in Sherbrooke, Québec, than it would be with air travel from where we used to live in Vancouver, BC. And our second car is 100% electric, in a province with “clean” electricity.  So, in terms of our ecological footprint, it’s bad, but it could be worse.

A couple times per year, I use air travel to go to professional meetings of one sort or another.  For 2-3 others I drive or take buses or trains.  I’m pretty sure the flights alone put me well above my yearly fair share of contributions to atmospheric pollution, but I turn down a decent number of invitations, in part because of consumption guilt, and I travel less than many fellow ecologists.  It’s bad, but it could be worse.

Over the past 20 years, my wife and I have travelled by plane to Costa Rica, Panama, Peru and Bolivia, Tanzania, and Malaysia, among other places, with the primary purpose of experiencing the world’s unique ecosystems, flora, and fauna (birds especially).  But for the most part, we try to keep things local, with frequent trips to natural areas nearby.  It’s bad, but it could be worse.

What does any of this have to do with ecological science?

For as long as ecology has been a science, it has been entangled with environmentalism.  Being an academic ecologist does not logically commit one to being an environmentalist, but I’d bet that the vast majority of DE readers have a stronger-than-average environmental conscience.  Without any need for speculation, we can also all see that the conferences we fly to these days often have a major focus on environmental change: all the ecological and evolutionary consequences of human activities, in particular carbon emissions (via climate change) and land-use change.  We step off of carbon-belching planes and proceed to spend several days bemoaning extinctions driven ultimately by carbon emissions.  We sip B.C. wine at dinner, sharing our outrage at the loss of yet more natural habitat to vineyards in the Okanagan Valley.  Of course other scientists (and people of many stripes) fly to meetings and drink wine with friends, but ecologists are in the special position of being directly concerned with downstream consequences of these activities for the natural world.

In this article in The Guardian, I thought Madeleine Somerville captured the gist of what I’m getting at perfectly with the phrase “the unbearable hypocrisy of being an environmentalist” (mostly I’m just re-channelling her article here).  In a recent review of Chris Thomas’ book (Inheritors of the Earth), David Biello captured the essence of many ecologists’ travels: “…a truly strange world in which people fly all over to see rare of declining animals and plants, emitting the greenhouse gases that make those animals and plants extinct”.  Ring a bell?  I struggle with inconsistencies in my thoughts and actions almost daily.

It is entirely possible for an individual to choose to reduce personal air travel to zero, to live in a small communal apartment, to use only public transit, to forego food with a steep environmental cost, and so on.  But hardly anyone is willing to incur the full costs in terms of relationships (e.g., visiting family at the other end of the country), having a job that is fulfilling and satisfying (the reason you’re at this end of the country), or simply doing the things we enjoy most in life (e.g., traveling).  I certainly am not.  Some students seem to come close, but my sense is that adherence to the code of conduct wains as people attain the financial means to start making exceptions.  Thus the hypocrisy, which does indeed feel unbearable sometimes.

So what to do?  I certainly don’t have any good answers to that question.  My main reason for wanting to write about this, apart from a bit of self-therapy, was to hear how others face down their hypocrisy.  Do you feel it?  Personally, I deal with the unbearable hypocrisy by:

  • Owning the hypocrisy, rather than denying it. It’s bad and yes it could be worse.  But how could it be better?  I try to continue to ask that question.
  • Trying to be less judgemental (than I used to be) of people who have made different life decisions, especially when they involve contradictions between actions and stated values. “Judge not.  Before you judge yourself” (Bob Marley).
  • In some cases, replacing professional air travel with online meetings. I’m not quite yet willing to ground myself completely, but maybe one day.
  • Limit second-guessing. If I’ve committed to something I’m unsure about, I try to think more about not doing it again in the future than whether I should have done it the first time.
  • Exercise my democratic right to vote in ways that seem most likely to promote collective environmental responsibility. A great deal of consumption seems to be driven by a general unwillingness of people to forgo what everyone else seems to be enjoying so much (cue Facebook photos of your friend swimming with turtles in a tropical reef), so I wonder sometimes if “top-down” (dis)incentives are the only way to really advance these things.

Anyone else feeling conflicted?

*Title phrase modified from here.


132 thoughts on “The unbearable hypocrisy of being an ecologist*

  1. Thank you for a very good article, I appreciate that you have deep thoughts behind what you do before going to “judge” your neighbour. I appreciate your honesty very much because most of the people being environmentally aware talk nonsense, are hypocrates and the objectives

    1. There is no denial on my side that there are changes in our ecosystem, even though impacts of changes are not shared at the same grade everywhere.
    2. I do not deny that human kind had been and still is contributing to the ecosystem negatively.
    3. I am not scientist. Having read various articles on the subject (different perspectives) I am not sure that most of the mainstream explanations are that simple and straightforward.
    4. I do not have doubt that environmentalism is rather political issue than being honestly about protection of the ecosystem (please note, that I do not have clear explanation what is behind, have some ideas, however, this is something for sociologists, economists, politologists). At the same time, I admit that exploitation of the ecosystem is not sustainable at the rate we have now (considering increasing population).
    5. Anybody supporting, striving for greater good of human kind, not doing it on everyday level in his habitat, however, rather striving for collective (usually restrictive) action is either naive, unconscious, not very well informed, utopist, or wants to restrict others (for selfish reasons or for the sake that he/she can not achieve certain level of standard, or at least has worries that will not be to do so in the future – I suspect that some people have even this motivation).
    6. I do not bite entitlement of younger generations….most of them are completely naive, some of them seek “to protect the earth” for ideological reasons or for selfish business reasons (protection of environment, decarbonisation is pretty big business). I am not coming from top 20 most developed countries, however, renewables is sacking money out of our pockets and goes to wealthy entrepreneurs pretty much (as a result of lobbying in parliament they were ready to invest and as first, set the rules favorably for themselves and now each citizens (EUR 1 mld. annually).
    If the investments came from pension funds or state (to further invest into renewables, I would say a word against it….). It is all fake … I mean measures, not the idea that we should behave more reasonably in order to cause less harm to the planet (nothing against it).
    7. I was born in the Eastern bloc communist/socialist (whatever it was) regime and I am immediately in guard of anything collectivistic idealogy, action or even thoughts. I believe in doing good on individual level on everyday basis…I am very suspicious of anybody who wants to do good collectively, at expense of others. Everybody should start from themselves. Most people talking about environment, protection and measures (what we should do) are hypocrites (mostly educated middle class people who live in relative luxury and enjoying what life brings without any serious restrictions). Example: I have just had a heated debate with my relative on environmentalism and protection of earth. I suggested that their family should give up going to mountains (150 miles distant from our town) if environment protection is so important. I was immediately send to hell.
    Similarly,I asked if it was so essential to buy so many presents to each relative (electronics, LEGO, sports gear, usually imported from places distant hundred miles). You could not imagine what fury it was. Main objection was that I do not want to protect the environment…..and true I do not want to, I do not care in terms of gestures, standpoints, public proclamations….
    8. I tend to agree with those that as the living standard (usage of stuff/ energy and natural resources) growths, with increasing population it is getting to be a problem and issues will increase (not proportionally over the planet). I believe that sensible population policy is a key, increasing standard of living for smaller population, rather than having more people each year and try to cut the standard for them… I do not have any solutions for what is going on, my solution is to act sensibly every day.
    9. I am not ready to cut on what I have and will oppose anybody trying to put me into some collective action to protect whatever…. I worked hard during my life and the limited luxury (see below) is mine and I am not ready to give it up even if the human kind would not exist in 200 years… it is not about being mean, it is about principles. I strongly believe in principles, I refuse any collectivistic hypocracy…..

    My standpoint:

    1. I do not care about the earth in general terms, I do not feel that I have to protect anything in terms of collective, usually, restrictive action, approval, participation on any restrictions.I care about my environment in local sense, I tend not to do any unnecessary harm to it.
    2. I am not that smart to think that there can be a miracle and suddenly we will reverse some processes on this earth and, miraculously reverse what is going on… no chance if it is a natural development, no chance if it will be enforced (it would be resolved in huge conflicts over the restrictions and there is no doubt that not everyone will respect it…. e.g. Hollywood stars talking total crap about environment, billionaires flying private jets, enjoying their carbon rich lifestyle). Unless we start from desirable towards necessary in terms of restrictions, I am not ready to participate at all… as a result of principle. If we start to cut unnecessary (luxury of individuals, whatever you put into that bucket), I absolutely do not care about any environment and related issues.
    3. I do not care what happens to this planet in hundreds of years, I can not successfully influence it. I am sure, our planet will deal with itself on its own as it did for c. 4.5 mil years (or less if you follow some other belief system, it is up to your liking). I do not see any reason why we should continue to live here for eternity. I do not object against it, however, I do not see reason to have the human kind on the earth forever. If we will act reasonably we have some chances, if not, we will not. I do not care about future generations (again in collective sense), I am an ordinary person without any significant impact on what is going on here (economically, politically, religiously or in any other sense). I can influence my direct environment (except of some environmentally conscious relatives … see above).
    4.I CARE WHAT I do on everyday level and try to act reasonably (I do not have a car, do not travel, even I can afford it, I use public transport or rather walk, live in relatively small place, no weekend house, no special hobbies requiring a lot of stuff that needs to be produced and imported, usually buy local, do not buy expensive clothes, shoes, electronics, have the same computer for 7 years, had only 2 mobiles in 10 years and still keep the old in reserve, etc…. I live modest life in terms of my carbon or other footprint and I continue to do so. I care about my direct environment, I will try to act reasonably in the future on local level, where I can influence it. I will not overspend / consume more, on contrary, I tend to consume less as quality of my life is not determined by volume / weight of goods. I do not travel for business purposes anymore (I did for 6 months year ago, and I prevented any business trip I could – I successfully managed to avoid 5 trips, the other ones I had to – was ordered to).
    5. I will not feel guilty for what impact I have on environment, it has improving tendency (I used to spend much more in the past) and I am not ready to to restrict myself more than I do and only on voluntary basis (which I am doing). I do not care about environmental anxiety of anybody, I feel anxious about what they are prepared to do to me and other in the NAME OF GREATER GOOD.
    6. I am not ready to go back to caves or spend my life in one village just because somebody feels that he/she/they can save the planet. I will travel and want to travel for vacation occasionally (had 2 vacations using plane in last 6 years, not exceeding 1000 miles in total per year driving car for private reasons, total public miles per year 2500 annually – work / business – last 4 months 200 miles and still decreasing). I do not have any cows, animals, dogs etc, I do not have children, so my carbon impacts is small and diminishing as I am getting older, but I will not restrict myself as a result of some idiotic utopia or someone who wants to make a better world. Make better yourself not the world (start with yourself) … if you care about the planet, start to suffer and then I will believe you and join you… only if you will have smaller footprint that I have currently.

    … being conscious a bit, I am ready to go even further if I will see that many of those who want to protect / make the world a better place will:

    Throw out their skies (downhill, cross country is Ok if you can do it in your back), gave up their jets, yacht, foreign (especially Bali) travel, stop buying presents for Xmas (start to make some on your own from paper and wood from love – renewable you now), stop drinking imported wine and beer, give up on foreign delicacies, give up on watching sport (if not done locally), stop watching movies shot abroad and so on such as … stop buying stuff you absolutely do not need (no fancy clothes, handbags for your wife, daughter), one car in family (sorry mate, second electric does not help at all, no justification of environmentally motivated travel is justified, local scientist can do it based on your wife´s instructions, they can record anything she sees locally, transmit it, she can perfectly do science at home, like others in the past did). It means you will start to suffer the austerity and you will bite it in voluntary and very humble way, then I am yours and I will support you, believe you, do the same thing with you. Ideally, start with your kids and explain them that some measures are coming into their lives and we will see how eager you will be and how long it will last. Unless you will start to cut your arm first (please, not literally….) I do not bite anything that goes of anybody`s mouth in terms of carbon, environment, protection whatever. Lead by examples before you start to restrict those whose carbon footprint is probably much lower than yours.

  2. Thank you Jeremy for your honesty!
    Your words resonate in me even if I’m not an ecologist or an environmental scientist. I’m a 3D video game artist and teacher. I try to have an educational approach to the games I develop. I try to use my projects as a channel to share human messages and stories, and that gives me meaning on what I do. Still, I’m constantly pushing the graphic cards of computers as mush I can in order to render beautiful graphics that consume lots of energy that will consequently generate CO2 emissions.
    On the other hand I’m trying to learn how to optimize as much I can my projects so they’ll have (hopefully) less impact on the Environment.
    I’m trying to find some kind of balance, sacrificing some stuff, so even if my graphic card need to “eat” some more… “it’s bad, but it could be worse”.

    Maybe I’ll develop a game on planetary environmental management as an pedagogic effort to balance my footprint.

  3. Pingback: Friday links: a striking correction in ecology, the greatest female scientific illustrators, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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