People in rich countries must rein in their consumption, but the hypocrisy of high-profile environment advocates makes them poor role models, argues Gaia Baracetti.
By Gaia Baracetti
This is an overpopulation blog, but its authors have made it clear that overconsumption is a problem too, and that the two are, as it is often said, “two sides of the same coin”. Revisiting the helpful geometric metaphor: just as it doesn’t make sense to discuss whether height or width contributes more to the area of a rectangle, so it needs to be acknowledged that both per capita consumption and human numbers are important in determining total environmental impact. We can debate whether it would be preferrable to have a planet with more humans and a more modest average lifestyle, or the reverse; I have myself made on this blog the argument that countries can (and perhaps should) choose to strive for a lower long-term human population in order to enjoy a larger share of resources per capita. Other species need their fair share too, of course.
Right now, however, the situation is so dire that we cannot afford to choose just one: both overall population and overall consumption need to go down – as quickly as possible – if humanity and the biosphere are to stand a chance at all.
We can dream of a day when concerned humans such as ourselves will not need to frown upon the occasional extra child by a couple, or little bursts of material indulgence – but we are simply not there yet: we are racing fast in the opposite direction and need to U-turn now.
Since every article on this blog is already about human overpopulation, I will not devote this one to convincing you that it is a problem. I rather want to point to the fact that, if we don’t accept that overconsumption is a problem too, we are not going to gain any new followers. And I don’t mean lip service: I mean showing that we care through practical actions.
There is one form of overconsumption that isn’t recognized as such: travel. No one is coming to this space to brag about a new car or designer bag, but there have been a couple of articles and private emails I’ve exchanged with readers of this blog, in which travel was discussed as a legitimate personal pleasure no matter how distant or frequent, or even a net positive as a way to personally become aware of the dire predicament our planet is in.
Except, the energy and infrastructural requirements of travel are gigantic, not to mention the conversion of wild habitats into tourist spots, whether it’s for the masses or the lucky few, and even the displacement of native populations or competition with their traditional economic activities.
Not only flight per se (we all know that already), but tourism and any kind of travel as such is one of the biggest polluters, the biggest consumers of resources, and the biggest drivers of habitat loss, that humanity engages in at all (and yes, this includes “ecotourism”). And it’s surprisingly elitist. This might seem hard to believe from the perspective of a wealthy citizen of a rich country for whom a holiday is a goes-without-saying regular recurrence as well as a human right – but most humans alive on the planet today never take a plane, and many travel very little and only locally, often just by foot. According to the former CEO of Boeing, 80% of the world population has never been on a plane. Unlike commonly singled out “bad” activities, such as the usual culprits of eating meat or burning anything, travelling for pleasure is both unnecessary for survival and exclusive.
Climate denialism is a dishonest tactic used by the fossil fuel lobby and its allies to protect their profits, but there’s another, more insidious discourse discouraging people from supporting good climate or environmental policies: pointing out the hypocrisy of high-profile environmentalists.
Most climate action campaigners are hypocrites.. I remember the first time I got this impression: it was with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth – why is this guy driving around in an SUV?? It feels like ages ago – and things have gotten so much worse since then.
From Bill Gates to the British Royal family, to minor virtue-signalling celebrities, it seems that anyone who is telling us, nowadays, that we need to stop climate change, stop burning fossil fuels, stop eating meat or save the elephants lives in a mansion, owns an island, or uses private jets to bypass traffic.
People have picked up on this quickly – we are not stupid, and most of us are by default just waiting for excuses not to be good when it costs us something. And what better excuse to do nothing than to realise that the people who are telling you to stop this and that aren’t actually doing it themselves?
When it comes to the environment I’ve heard this argument so many times and in so many versions; from “I’m not going to eat insects for you to live in a castle” to, less poetically: “if climate change is such an urgent problem, why are scientists taking so many polluting flights to tell us and each other about it?” We could perhaps forgive a couple of them – for example David Attenborough, who needs to shoot very impactful documentaries, but we can’t all be David Attenboroughs, and the planet right now seems to be wrapped inside a relentless swirling of famous and unfamous animal- and environment-lovers who are personally determined to pollute like there’s no tomorrow for the sole purpose of being personal witnesses to the damage their own pollution is doing to the planet. And then telling the peasants about it.
The justification for environmental campaigning travel is similar to the justification for population inaction: “what if that extra child is the one who will find the solution to our problems?” But we already know what the solution is: we need to have less children. Similarly, what’s the point of spending huge amounts of resources to campaign about climate change or the biodiversity crisis, when we already know that the solution requires to be content with staying put, waste less and live less extravagantly?
I felt a sense of personal satisfaction when, after French actress Marion Cotillard gave her “absolute” support to the environmental movement Les Soulèvements de la Terre as it was facing repressive action by the French government, people took to social media to express in colorful terms how if you are flying on private jets between France and your California mansion, your support might be just a little hypocritical and unwelcome. If there’s one thing the French are known for, it’s for not being terribly patient with the antics of their elites.
Just right now, I opened Twitter and found more of the same: sport celebrity Gary Lineker posted an alarming picture of current temperatures in Southern Europe with the caption: “Yeah, it’s a bit hot, but it’s summer. Let’s keep drilling for new oil. Who cares about our kids and their kids’ future anyway?”. The most liked comment to this was a collection of Lineker’s tweets about his flights and the situation in various airports, captioned: “How the hell are you supposed to take off with an airplane every week without any new oil, Gary?” Lineker acknowledged the burn and later tweeted an embarassed non-apology that included the words “we’re all hypocrites” – except we are not all hypocrites. This is a bit like a child being scolded and pointing to the other children: but they are also doing it!
But these are small fish. Here I offer what I think is the most outrageous and well-known example: environmental hero Leonardo Di Caprio. Please follow the links below.
This is Leonardo Di Caprio giving a “moving speech about climate change” for the UN, which appointed him as a “Messenger of Peace with a special focus on climate change”. He also received an award for his activism (which he took a private jet to go collect) and sits on various boards of environmental NGOs.
This is him looking nerdy for his climate-change-analogy disaster movie Don’t Look Up (for which he was apparently paid 30 million dollars).
This is him relaxing on vacation on a mega yacht – which “produces as much carbon by sailing just seven miles as an average car belches out in a year” (see how quickly the right-wing press seized on this?)
These are some of Di Caprio’s properties; as Architectual Digest oxymoronically explains, “The actor and climate change activist has owned many extravagant properties over the years, including an island in Belize”.
I once read a conversation about Leonardo Di Caprio’s glaring hypocrisy in which someone’s response was: “so what: do you want Leonardo to live in a cave??” (Architectural Digest didn’t mention he owns any).
I find this random snippet very telling. It shows that many of us don’t subscribe to the idea that we’re all in this together, that we’re all human beings living on this same shared planet, but rather think that certain people have earned or inherited an exemption from what is expected of everyone else. This seems to only apply to environmental “crimes”, however. Like many other straight white men – everyone’s favourite punching bag nowadays – Di Caprio is routinely criticized for his sexual behaviour and specifically his preference for dating women much younger than himself. In this case, being rich and famous is no justification. Fashionable morals require sexual deviance as currently defined not to be tolerated no matter who is guilty of it; while overconsumption, which has measurable and far-reaching consequences on everyone else and the planet, is on the other hand almost to be expected, or celebrated, even from people who pay lip service to environmentalism.
Many of us aren’t fooled, however. The only person I have personally ever heard describing Leonardo Di Caprio’s activism as worthy of respect was a wealthy friend of mine who works at a bank. These are the circles among which the most hypocritical kinds of eco-activism thrive – people who want to be told they are good without having to actually earn it by doing something unpleasant, such as, say, living in a house that only has one bathroom.
It’s not just about a couple of clueless celebrities, in fact. If you are a university professor, lawyer, researcher in any “sustainability” field, in the West especially; if you work for an NGO, or God forbid for a government, or if you own or run a “sustainable” fashion company or fair trade business, chances are your level of consumption is a lot higher than what would actually be sustainable for a healthy planet even if there were only a couple billion of us, and than the world average today. You’re most likely a global 10 percenter, if not one percenter. You know that – you’ve travelled. You’ve seen the indigenous people whose land is ravaged; you’ve seen the last of the wild animals becoming extinct, the rising seas, the retreating glaciers, the burning forests… You feel that you are better positioned to caution others about all of this, because you’ve seen it. But the simple fact of your having seen it makes you part of the problem, not part of the solution.
If this travel was a one-off, an unavoidable requirement of your job, or involved living in a place for many years without leaving it much… fair enough. But we know that most of the time this isn’t the case. And, again, it’s not just the travelling to faraway places. It’s the big houses and the renovations, the second homes of “nature lovers”, the nice clothes, the car, electric or otherwise…. The pets, too (“if America’s pets were their own country, their meat consumption would rank fifth in the world” – and that’s just the meat-eating ones).
It doesn’t even really matter how money is spent: it still remains one of the best proxies for environmental impact. Excessive inequality and consumption are two of the chief obstacles to achieving a livable planet for all. Environmentalists ignoring them is inexcusable.
As well as systemic change, we need individual actions to inspire others and show what is possible. If no one tries to be sustainable now, how are we even supposed to know what a sustainable lifestyle would look like?
We need better role models – and we can have them, too. Say what you will about Greta Thunberg, at least she literally tries to walk her walk. She’s invited to New York for a climate speech? She sails there. She takes the train to places; she gets arrested by police while protesting a coal mine in Germany.
I hope you all have someone like that in your daily life, who’s setting a good example. In my home town in Italy, there’s an environmental activist everyone knows. We expect to always see him at fairs, protests and talks, handing out leaflets of half-crumpled recycled paper, printed on both sides, about whatevever cause he’s now risking a lawsuit for. We’ve seen him bike around town from one event to the next, always in a hurry, always with some time to spare for a chat and an update. We know he doesn’t have a job but works all the time, lives extremely modestly, and devotes all his energy to environmental campaigns. You never hear him brag about holidays or new possessions – he was almost apologetic when he confessed, to a spectator’s dismay, he sometimes needs to use a car. His clothes are so quaint and worn out, they never look the way vintage does when it cycles back into style.
We know we are not expected to all live quite like that. It’s ok to indulge in a little luxury every now and then. But I get the sense everyone in our small community respects him, and loves him, and is reassured and inspired by him, because he embodies with his entire life the very ideals he fights for so publicly. A frugal life that doesn’t require giving up all pleasure, that can still include good local food or a walk through the flowery meadows. A life of commitment to a cause that is hard but not solitary, that is founded on love for the land and meaningful human interactions.
He and others like him show us the way. We walk a little behind them, but at least know which direction to take. Example is crucial. Beautiful young women and wealthy Westerners might love themselves some Leonardo, but what we really need if we are to save the planet, and ourselves, are more Gretas.
Hypocrisy is one of the biggest turn offs for human beings. It pollutes not just the person but the cause too. It makes us think that even our most precious values are fake and worthless. We are drawn to vice, looking for excuses to indulge in it. But we also yearn for virtue, hoping to find fellow humans who truly embody it.
Comment from TOP Editors: This blog briefly touches upon the concept of ecotourism. We will soon come back with another blog exploring ecotourism, nature-based tourism, and their role for protected areas (like national parks) in the Third World.