350.org founder and recipient of Rockefeller funding, Bill McKibben has a new essay published in Orion magazine in which he attempts to re-define hypocrisy. Whilst, at a casual browsing of the article, it seems unremarkable on further analysis it indicates the root-deep rot and malaise that goes right through modern environmentalism.
McKibben cleverly begins his argument by framing it as an example of how people demand perfection in others before they will make the slightest effort themselves. He cites supposed reactions from cynics to his latest bus tour across America promoting awareness of climate change: “Do these morons not know that their bus takes gasoline?” McKibben has them asking, before replying, in the essay, “In fact, our bus took biodiesel”. He cites attacks on warming figureheads like Al Gore with his “two houses” (only two? I thought it was more) as examples of this kind of poisonous and debilitating thinking. If, he argues, we focus on what those who raise the alarm are doing, we are only shifting the focus from “the system” (where he feels it should be) to individual examples of virtue, which soon run up against limits of effectiveness. In other words, even if all those who evince concern about anthropogenic climate change were to sell their cars, forswear flights, move into an apartment, etc, it would not be enough – others would simply use up what they had given up. It is the system that needs changing.
So here’s the crux of McKibben’s argument then:
But if 10 percent of people, once they’ve changed the light bulbs, work all-out to change the system? That’s enough. That’s more than enough. It would be enough to match the power of the fossil fuel industry, enough to convince our legislators to put a price on carbon. At which point none of us would be required to be saints. We could all be morons, as long as we paid attention to, say, the price of gas and the balance in our checking accounts. Which even dummies like me can manage.
He then follows it up with the traditional environmentalist flourish: make a seemingly outrageous statement designed to rouse your readers and finish with a call to arms. Just driving a Prius, he informs his readers, is not enough if you’re not actively trying to change “the system” you’re not helping:
Because there’s a certain sense in which Prius-driving can become an out, an excuse for inaction, the twenty-first-century equivalent of “I have a lot of black friends.” It’s nice to walk/drive the talk; it’s much smarter than driving a semi-military vehicle to get your groceries. But it’s become utterly clear that doing the right thing in your personal life, or even on your campus, isn’t going to get the job done in time; and it may be providing you with sufficient psychic comfort that you don’t feel the need to do the hard things it will take to get the job done. It’s in our role as citizens—of campuses, of nations, of the planet—that we’re going to have to solve this problem. We each have our jobs, and none of them is easy.
McKibben wants to redefine hypocrisy on environmental matters away from what people actually do and what they consume and focus instead on their efforts to change the system. He argues that it is far more important that students become part of the movement to demand universities divest their funds from stocks and shares in oil companies than it is whether or not they drive to their lectures. For McKibben, what you do doesn’t matter as much as what you say you believe.
But McKibben’s argument, far from unmasking hypocrisy, licenses it. It gives it legitimacy and justification. When McKibben claims that
If those of us who are trying really hard are still fully enmeshed in the fossil fuel system, it makes it even clearer that what needs to change are not individuals but precisely that system. We simply can’t move fast enough, one by one, to make any real difference in how the atmosphere comes out.
Why should we care, McKibben argues, if Al Gore has two palatial mansions (“houses” is a inadequate euphemism for them, let’s tell the truth here). Why should we be concerned that Rajendra Pachauri is chauffeured in a limousine one measly mile to his place of work? Why should we worry that McKibben himself takes oil money (for what else is Rockerfeller money if its not oil money?) and jets around the world giving speeches about the evils of oil?
McKibben’s plea that we not waste time pointing out the incongruity of those who urge us to cut back on our meat consumption, or change to energy efficient light bulbs whilst they enjoy the most opulent and extravagant lifestyles themselves (no matter how many solar panels they may have on their roof) is the most brazen hypocrisy of all. It would allow the Gores, Kleins, and Chris Martins of this world to continue their jet-setting around the world, their fat incomes and their huge homes. As McKibben would have it, when those of us who work, pay taxes and struggle to heat our homes as the cost of electricity soars, point to the hypocrisy of being told by the man in 33 room mansion (Coldplay’s Chris Martin) or the man in the private jet (James Cameron) that our actions are destroying the world, we will be met with a reassuring verbal pat on the back and the assurance that all of that doesn’t really matter. What matters, if we were to believe McKibben’s redefinition of hypocrisy, is that they care. They get it. They’re working to change the system.