Synopsis: Righteous Environmentalism is unneeded & ineffective.
This webpaper considers the impact of the adoption of elements of religious thinking into environmentalism, which in its most extreme form can present a danger to society of itself, but mostly results in “righteous environmentalism”.
There is a widespread belief that righteousness and the helping of others requires self-sacrifice, typically through austerity which can be seen a part of a righteous existence with Shaolin monks as perhaps extreme examples.
But while feelings of righteousness can be supported by embracing austerity, it is not necessarily true that humanity has to embrace austerity in order to exist sustainably and tackle climate change.
The most urgent challenge is climate change, and we know what is required: to stop burning fossil fuels.
One of the best examples of action by citizens to reduce use of fossil fuels has been the widespread adoption of solar power in Australia. If people had been told “make the sacrifice for the environment” and go solar” instead of “you can save money by going solar” this might have created a higher percentage of those going installing solar feeling righteous and preaching to others, but it may have resulted in less total installations.
The same argument applies for nations, as it is well established that solar and wind are a lower cost way to produce electricity than the use of fossil fuels power generation, just as solar power at home can cost less than power form the grid.
The real problem is the barriers hindering the transition to this new power. The same with transport, where EVs should cost less than ICEVs, but the “new product tax” and “low volume tax” mean that is not yet realised.
“Righteous environmentalism”: The austerity problems.
The principles of reducing ecological footprint and the population problem.
The principle is simple: we all need to reduce our environmental footprint, sometimes referred to as ecological footprint.
There are three types of steps to reduce ecological footprint per person:
- Austerity: Reduce emissions from light bulbs use by having light bulbs in use less often or fewer light bulbs.
- Efficiency: Reduce emissions from light bulb use by switching to more efficient light bulbs.
- Elimination: Remove the source of the footprint by, for example, stopping the burning of fossil fuels to produce electricity.
While it is the austerity approach that has the religious style austerity element and creates impression of “suffering for the cause”, both steps for austerity and efficiency will be ineffective in addressing protecting the environment, if increases in population cancel out any savings. Total emissions are the product of “emissions per person” multiplied by “number of people creating emissions” and don’t result from emissions per person alone. Governments actually promoting population growth for economic reasons can erode success in emissions reduction just as effectively as those failing to embrace and support reductions per person.
The population of those creating emissions can also grow as a result of countries moving to being a less developed nation to becoming industrialised.
Austerity and efficiency steps will always on their own reduce impact on the environment over what it would be otherwise with the same population, but they may be insufficient stop an increase in total impact on the environment.
Consider the light bulb example. With the austerity approach if people manage to live with 50% less light but the population of the world with light bulbs more than doubles, total emissions still rise. With efficiency approach where LED lights are around 7x more efficient than incandescent bulbs, the move to LEDs will reduce total environmental impact unless we end up with 7x more people using light bulbs, and with 90% of people already having some access to electricity, 7x more use of light bulbs would require another population increase by a similar multiple to that experienced over the 20th century. Of course, with elimination, the environment always wins, and just as well, since gains in efficiency of a factor of 7 are very rare.
Just as with the light bulb, austerity is usually the least effective as not only is there a limit to how far people can reduce their activities, but there are usually less developed nations increasing those same activities. But austerity does give that “suffering for the cause” feeling for the masses, although it is also often combined with plans to increase the numbers of those masses to grow the economy. If the population grows as the richest will always encourage, not only does this increase the base of people, but it also increases the concentration of the wealth within the very rich, we already live in a world where the emissions of the top 1% create double the emissions of the worlds poorest 50%.
The austerity doesn’t have mass appeal problem.
The idea everyone needs to adopt austerity does not have mass appeal, and there is a real danger of helping the fossil fuel industry manage to link a move away from fossil fuels with a decline in living standards.
There can also be a fight to gain government support, since austerity results in a loss of economic activity. Gains in efficiency can at least result in improved productivity, although these too can also result in reduced economic activity.
Problems: The keep cup example.
There was a debate in Australia for national Science week in 2022 with the topic “YOU can save the planet. Con or not?“, with the proposition: “Your keep cup can’t save you” using the example of reusable vs disposable coffee cups as a symbol of efforts by individuals vs efforts by big business.
Disclaimer: I use a keep cup.
The debate was declared to be won by the negative, thus declaring the audience were convinced “your keep cup can save you”.
The number of disposable single use cups has increased since keep cups were introduced, did not impact the result, as both sides accepted that actions of individuals would not be enough to “save us”, which could be seen as effectively conceding the debate to the affirmative. The negative won asserting that actions like keep cups recruit people to being environmentalists, and that would eventually lead to change, which was not actually debated by the affirmative, who instead stuck with the original question.
Had the affirmative be bold enough with potentially dominated by righteous environmentalists to raise the point given only 5% of people use keep cups after 20 years means the recruiting is too slow, they still may not have won.
Some key points from the debate:
- 6:00: Total 61.8 million cups diverted from landfill.
- 8:05: The amount of people who use a keep cup is 5% in local cafes (but unattributed stat)
- 10:32: Advocating for use of “keep cups” has been running for 10 years (searching reveals from 2007).
- 13:08: From the start of the industrial revolution until 2010, 63% by [
- 14:07: “What about kids?” 58.6 metric tonnes of waste per year per child.
- 15:08: More emissions from one international flight than from one year of driving a pickup/ute.
The debate is really just using keep cups as symbol of individual action. Both sides strayed from question, particularly the negative side which mainly conceded the topic as stated that individual action can’t save you but suggested that it can lead to people becoming involved and voting for politicians who will enact things that will save the planet. It what could be seen as confirmation bias, the audience was record is voting for the negative and thus “yes, your keep cup can save you”.
Interestingly the closing speaker for the affirmative even used “opiate for the masses” which is almost the same term I appropriated from Karl Marx, although instead being the name of a rock band. Either way it may be true because this debate was in Australia where “keep cups” have not reduced the total amount of disposable coffee cups in use because the Australian Government is aggressively pursuing population growth as an economic strategy, which has seen the number of coffee drinkers grow over the time interval by far more than the number of people who have adopted keep cups.
In summary, keep cups being adopted is better than nothing, and yes, I use keep cups, but they are not enough to stop the impact on the environment increasing, and have not motivated people to push political parties in Australia to enact anything beyond “opium of the people” policies with respect to climate change, while still promoting fossil fuels projects.
Keep cups do not eliminate use of disposable cups, but instead could be considered an efficiency or austerity gain by reducing the use of disposable cups. Whether people are inconvenienced by bringing their own “keep cup” is debatable, which makes whether keep cups are an efficiency step or an austerity step debatable. People do have to buy their own cup and can feel they “are making an effort” for the cause” by bringing the cup, so there are some attributes of austerity.
Austerity heresy: Are pickup trucks really bad for the planet?
Pickup trucks, known in Australia as utes, have become seen as a symbol of people just flagrantly breaching all principles of austerity.
I don’t drive a pickup, and I have been known to be disparaging about some of the huge pickup trucks now increasingly in fashion, and now the top selling vehicles in the USA, Canada, Australia and some other countries.
The call is “These vehicles are way bigger vehicles than most owners need and are just wasteful!”
But then, I drive a vehicle with 5 seats despite where mostly only one seat, and very, very rarely more than two seats, are occupied. I also live in a house where most rooms have zero occupants most of the time. When people are asleep the rest of house is empty, and when people are awake the bedrooms are empty. Should most people just live in smaller houses? Perhaps people having bedrooms to themselves rather than sleeping in dormitories is also just wasteful?
The question is, where does this need for austerity stop. What defines the limit? Why do we single out pickups rather than the far more extravagant and far higher in CO2 emissions motor yachts?
Certainly, there is a case against driving large pickups when they are needlessly producing CO2 emissions, but what about if someone has an EV pickup charged by their home solar? Can we easily adjust and decide, that then a pickup may be OK? I read some websites that repeat over and over “EVs should not be SUVs, but small city cars because that is all most people need!” Why?
Should we be limited to being only what we need? Should our homes also be limited to only what we need? cars be all we need? Are we moving towards a mentality that humans should exist in a manner that only meets basic needs?
Should environmentalists be all calling out everyone who does not adopt austerity in the name of the environment?
Psychology tells us that every day, whether you realise it or not, you’re making decisions on how to spend your time, what to pay attention to and where to direct your energy.
The point is that taken even the small symbolic act of using a keep cup trains our thoughts to be considering the planet. But does it also train our thoughts that to focus on own our own sacrifices and austerity to save the planet, and direct blame on those who do not join in instead on the fossil fuel industry?
“Righteous environmentalism” as a religion or cult?
Application of traits and the concepts of religion to environmentalism.
The term “traits” is used in psychology and in genetics, and the concept here is something of a combination of both with humans having some traits that play role in actual religions but can also play a wider role.
The main trait of interest here is that of austerity as an ideal: where adopting austerity and making sacrifices is associated with pursuit of the ideals. Examples include monks who live in austerity and even take a vow of silence, nuns who dedicate their lives to god, the Amish, Shakers and the complex relationship between music, dance and religion which can lead to a strained or complex relationship between religions even including Islam with music. Fasting is also part of many religious beliefs. In general, there have been many religions advocating going without money, food, music, dance, speaking and sex other than for procreation. Either so many religions advocated this because if “just feels right” for people, or “it just feels right” because it has been advocated so often by religion. Either way, it seems than many people decide “it just feel right” when hearing a cause is best served by embracing austerity.
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. ”When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” -Matthew 19:21-24What Is the Meaning of “A Camel Going Through the Eye of a Needle”?
There are other innate traits that can play a role, many of which are more relevant to more extreme forms of thinking common in religions including:
- superstition: as with Skinner’s pigeons, people also often come to associate outcomes with unrelated factors like wearing some item of clothing increasing chances their team wins a match.
- belief in a god(s): Almost every civilisation has had gods, and logically most have had false gods as no matter what god(s) you believe in, most people believe in different god(s) or no god.
Righteous Extremist environmentalism.
While righteous extremist environmentalism is not the focus of this page, and is a large topic of itself, just the acknowledging this exists, and a quick overview may provide perspective.
Strange and twisted as it might sound to many, right wing extremists are convinced that they are the righteous ones. Suicide terrorist do not commit suicide for self-gain, but because they believe in making the ultimate sacrifice for what they believe is a just cause.
Yes, people even kill for the environment or come to believe people should be killed. While it is common to declare these people evil, the problem is more complex as these people become convinced that acts most of us would consider unjustifiable are in their minds the morally correct path, but that is another complex topic with some thought by others including those I do not fully agree with available here, here, here, here, and here.
Austerity and another agenda: Farming humans?
An agenda of population growth to increase the wealth of the top 1%?
We live in a world where holders of the greatest wealth emphatically promote claims that there is a perpetual need for population growth as a necessity for economic growth or even economic stability. The reality is that population growth beyond a certain point only benefits the extremely wealthy and in contrast, as population grows, the need for austerity grows in order to lower the average person’s environmental footprint.
When considering how many people the can Earth support, the answer depends on how people live, and the greater the austerity, the greater the possible population. The calculations are that if the current 2023 population on Earth all lived like people in Bangladesh, India or Uganda, we would be living sustainably already, although the whole planet living this way may not be practical. But even we even moved up to the level of even like people in China, Cost Rica or Nepal, were would more than one planet for 8 billion, or to reduce our population to live sustainably. To live like people in France, we would need to reduce population to less than 3.5 billion and to less than 2 billion to support everyone living like people in the USA.
Basically, if most of the world lives like people in Bangladesh, then the population and the economy can grow. But this population enjoying the GDP per capita of Bangladesh and living in ever smaller higher density housing and using public transport will not be getting richer, so who will be getting richer? Would it be the 1% not living like the rest but responsible for an over 1/3 and increasing fraction of the total human environmental footprint?
A trap with ‘austerity’ is that the 80 million richest 1% already produce 1/3 of maximum possible ‘footprint’ for a sustainable planet.
We have only one finite planet. Already the environment supporting the lifestyle of those with greatest wealth, requires those with the least wealth to “tighten their belts”.
The International Labour Organisation’s Global Wage Report 2022–23 tracks the horrendous collapse of real wages for billions of people around the planet. The gaping distance between the incomes and wealth of 99% of the world’s population from the incomes and wealth of the billionaires and near-trillionaires who make up the richest 1% is appalling. During the pandemic, when most of the world has experienced a dramatic loss in their livelihoods, the ten richest men in the world have doubled their fortunes. This extreme wealth inequality, now entirely normal in our world, has produced immense and dangerous social consequences.IFP @NYU: The Perils of Pious Neoliberalism in the Austerity State
The austerity population trap.
In theory, if we could all live in sufficient austerity to match people in Bangladesh or India, and we could even double the current population! Current messages encouraging individuals to all reduce our ecological footprint all coexist with message on how population growth is essential for our economic growth.
And the motivation for this austerity is economic growth, to be enjoyed by whom?
The trap is that as population increases, the gap between rich and poor also grows, giving rise to a larger group of extremely wealth individuals who have greater wealth than ever before.
Yet we already live in a world where the emissions of the top 1% create double the emissions of the world’s poorest 50%.
The reality is, without population planning, small reductions in individual emissions enable population growth, and a larger population increases the wealth difference to the “top 1%” as well as the number within the top 1%, and so has a double impact on offsetting any reduction in emissions by the bulk of society.
To stop this cycle, a population plan would be required, but a population plan would erode the wealth of that very influential 1%.
- 2023 July 27 : Full update of complete page.
- 2023 May 20: initial version.