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Shouting 'hypocrisy' won't help us address the climate crisis

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Anyone who has criticized Big Oil's political power or advocated for a low-carbon economy has probably heard a familiar rhetorical chestnut: "You hypocrite! You use oil products all the time. Hah! I bet you even drove to the protest rally."

Before handing out philosophy awards to these pro-petro Ethical Geniuses, their chestnut deserves closer inspection. Let's unpeel it.

First, nobody is saying that we must turn off all the fossil fuel taps tomorrow. The real choice is between a planned and fast phase-out of fossil fuels, or a catastrophic economic and social collapse, as the fuels that took millions of years to produce run out in a few decades. Most of the protests focus on the expansion of extreme energy, like the Athabasca bitumen sands.

Second, most people I know who recognize greenhouse gas emissions as a threat to human survival take reasonable steps to limit their own carbon footprint. In our household, we wear sweaters indoors, frequently use public transit, avoid red meat (feed growing and cattle farts are big emitters), and recycle or compost everything possible. 

Our worst environmental sin is probably taking several flights a year -- for business, family visits and a vacation every year or two. As a partial offset, we donate generously to organizations advocating for sane climate and energy policies. And we'd be fine if air fares doubled to pay for the airline industry's real costs of business, so long as such user-pay costs were offset by more progressive income taxes and/or a dividend to low-carbon users.

But you could rightly say that changing a few light bulbs won't save the world; it's not fast or widespread enough. So, third point: As individuals, consumers can take symbolically valuable steps, but they don't have a real choice to opt out of a high-carbon economy. Are we supposed to live in mud huts, communicate via bongo drums, and travel by foot-and-pedal power only? If your grandmother in Vancouver is ailing, are you supposed to journey from Halifax by bicycle?  If it's winter, be sure to wear your parka. Oh wait, that's got synthetic fibres -- a petroleum product. You'll have to go out and skin a seal, or freeze.

In many cases, there aren't alternative products readily available. The much-touted battery-powered cars, for instance, are still a luxury product more than a realistic choice for hard-pressed families. The leave-it-to-consumer choice argument ignores that the market produces that which is profitable, which is not necessarily the same as that which is socially necessary. It overlooks the "free rider" problem -- to the extent that environmentally responsible consumer choices entail a sacrifice of time or money beyond the norm, it’s easy to say "Why should I do this when my neighbours don't and it doesn't make a big difference anyway?" 

The Ethical Geniuses, many of whom seem to worship the comforting illusions of free market economics, ignore the inconvenient truth of huge subsidies to fossil fuels -- $3.3 billion in Canada, according to Environmental Defence. And that doesn't count provincial fuel consumption subsidies, or the far greater cost of environmental damage from production pollution or downstream greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Ethical Geniuses shift the burden of responsibility onto consumers and away from where it most belongs: the institutions that are actively working to lock us further into fossil fuels, even if it means over-developing dangerous "extreme" energy. Public health advocates won the fight against Big Tobacco and saved thousands of lives by switching from blaming individual smokers of a powerfully addictive product, to focussing on the corporations that aggressively marketed it, despite knowing its lethal properties. 

The real intent of the hypocrisy trope, as researcher Shane Gunster and his colleagues note, is to shame and silence the critics of fossil fuel dependency, and "to cultivate cynicism about the potential for responses to climate change beyond the merely symbolic." Not surprisingly, the pro-petro Ethical Geniuses are well represented in the corporate press. Indeed, in their study of 12 major newspapers in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia, Gunster et. al. found that the outlet most likely to use the hypocrisy trope against climate action is Canada's own National Post. It is owned by Postmedia, which is reportedly lusting after some of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's "war room" fund to produce, in effect, pro-petro propaganda.  

One response to the Ethical Geniuses' chestnut is to flip it. Who are the real hypocrites in fossil fuel debates? They fall into three groups. 

First are the supporters of fossil fuel expansion, and particularly extreme energy. To avoid being hypocrites, they should forego products that depend on climate stability. As 350.org's Cam Fenton has put it, "If opposing new fossil fuel projects means not using fossil fuels, promoting new fossil fuel projects that would wreck the climate should mean not enjoying things that require a stable climate." 

So, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, "No coffee for them!" And oil executives should be required to vacation, or better still live, in the sacrifice zones of blasted landscapes and polluted groundwater on which their profits depend.  

Second, how about politicians who promise to take climate action, and then do the opposite once elected? The world's foremost example must be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Paris accord on climate change, and his proposed carbon tax, were measures already weak enough before Trudeau made a mockery of Canada's climate commitments by agreeing to expand rather than phase out the bitumen sands, and to forget his promise to end fossil fuel subsidies. This kind of hypocrisy, interestingly, is perfectly tolerable to the Ethical Geniuses.

The third group really takes the cake: Big Oil corporations. The word "hypocrisy" hardly suffices. Since the 1970s, they have understood the implications of their industry for catastrophic climate disruption. But, like Big Tobacco a generation ago, they chose to mislead the public and carry on their deadly business as usual, and actively block public investment in renewable energy. Big Oil has virtually colonized political parties, governments, civil servants, media, universities, and other institutions to serve its own interests -- squeezing every last profitable drop out of the ground regardless of the consequences, including the hundreds of thousands of people already dying each year from the impacts of climate change. 

Fossil fuel use is hard-wired into the economy, the design of cities, transportation, and food supply, the very fabric of everyday life. It's ridiculous to suggest that we could turn off the taps tomorrow. 

But it's equally absurd to dismiss pro-climate public advocacy because currently, people have to use oil products. Do you have to drop out of society in order to participate in society? That's an impossible demand, clearly intended to silence pro-climate advocates for inevitably falling short. 

From that perspective, climate crisis deniers can avoid hypocrisy, free to gorge their bloated sense of entitlement and exploit other people and nature as much as they can get away with. They may be something else (the technical term is "asshole," according to a best-selling book by California philosopher Aaron James), but not a hypocrite. Their beliefs and behaviour would match.

There is an alternative: Abandon the whole debate about who are the "real" hypocrites, an argument that cuts both ways. Instead, recognize that the gap between green aspirations and daily behaviour is inescapable in a society marinated in fossil fuels. Instead, support collective action and policy solutions that are adequate to the scale of the problem.

Robert Hackett is professor emeritus of communication at Simon Fraser University. He has published eight (mostly collaborative) academic books on media and politics, most recently Journalism and Climate Crisis in 2017An earlier shorter version of this article appeared in Common Ground in December 2018.

Image: Pixabay

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