Changing the world means changing the rules

If an environmentalist proposes a measure to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, soon enough someone will say, “But, you hypocrite, you still fly in jet planes and commute to work with an automobile!”

But a proper role of a just government is exactly to stop the free riders and profiteers, to force people to do the right thing, to force everybody to “do their bit”. I’m happy to do my share, but a sap to do more than that. For example, for most people, the largest portion of their carbon footprint is the children they chose to create. I, on the other hand, won’t have any descendants, which is good for the environment, but not so good for my selfish genes.

The exploiters in power love it when they get us thinking about what little volunteer nibbling around the edges we can do, such as recycle a scrap of paper. I recycle scrupulously, walk around the building at the end of the day turning off banks of fluorescent lights, curse the depraved indifference of those who leave faucets running, and so on. But in the big picture, none of it matters, and it just gives a sense of false agency. Only changing the rules matters. “At least I’m doing something.” is self-serving delusion if you’re not doing something that matters.

It’s crazy to unilaterally disarm, to wear a hairshirt just to avoid being called a hypocrite when you say what the rules should rationally be. If we don’t force everybody to do their share, it’s unjust, and most people won’t voluntarily be saps for long, no matter how many public service announcements are sandwiched in amidst the bill-paying flashy advertisements for more and more cool stuff.

If the society imposes a carbon tax on everybody that releases it into the atmosphere, prohibits the sale of cars that won’t get at least 50mpg, and so on, then people will go along, just as they did with the bans on second-hand tobacco smoke.

If the society is not willing to change its rules, then its alleged concerns about the environment are just sham poses for the camera, pious hopes and empty promises, irrelevant.

Aside: Changing yourself means changing your rules.



  1. According to Adrian Ayres Fisher

    Depression? Anguish? Despondency? Grief? Anger? I agree many of us feel these things. We are sentient, empathetic and refuse to go into denial. To me these seem like normal reactions to our global environmental systems crisis, not a psychiatric condition.

    Yet go to the doctor and say you are having these feelings about climate change, biodiversity loss and over-run earth systems boundaries in general, and you will get offered prozac. Really.

    Gandhi offers an attitude for doing necessary work to solve huge problems in the face of the seemingly impossible: he says something like each person cannot put out the whole fire, but each can work on putting out the fire where he or she happens to live.

    I have found that as long as I keep making lifestyle changes to lower my carbon footprint and keep working with other people in my community on various sustainability and social action projects, these feelings do get channeled into productive work. I don’t know how much difference it makes, but it’s something. Yet one wishes one could do more.

    Good point about the pathologizing of reason by insane systems. And I guess doing something is better than doing nothing. But isn’t it possible to fool yourself with positive actions that don’t get to the root of the problem, making them just a healthier form of Prozac?


  2. Environmentalists do this nonsense to each other, for example, here. If James Cameron lived in a barrel like Diogenes that would make him more credible? Why should Cameron unilaterally give up his hard-earned lifestyle?


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