Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Green Phonies": Practice what you teach? ... continued

This is the first ever post in this blog with the title of "Practice what you teach?" and yet I have added the "continued," in case you didn't notice it already ;)

Just to let you know that there was another place where I did--a decade ago, in September 2004, I authored this piece at Planetizen, in which I wrote about the difficulty in trying to achieve a consistency between what we say and what we do, and how to draw the line "between my academic life and personal decisions."

I recalled there:
Katie in the front row (of course!) asked me, "Francesca and I were talking the other day about you, Dr. Khé. How come you don't drive a small car but drive a gas-guzzling Jeep Cherokee instead?"
It has been ten years since, and I am all the more convinced about the moral of the story:
academic life means a continuous attempt to redraw the line that separates what I teach from how I live.
It does not mean that I drive a small car now.  Or, a hybrid, like a Prius.  Because, I remain convinced that there is no single identifying litmus test, like whether or not I drive a Prius, in order to understand how much I am helping the environment.

In fact, I have even made fun of Hollywood celebrities who flashed their Priuses when they were introduced.  Those celebrities, who are the very embodiment of material consumption, pretending to help the environment by driving around in Priuses was the best joke of all.  But, dammit, people so believe that a consumption hog who drives in a Prius is more "environmental" than one like me whose consumption is way minimal.

Is it possible at all to help people understand that a steak-eating, California almond-munching, Prius owner is not helping the environment?
According to recent psychological research, these outwardly symbolic displays of green values are, if anything, too powerful. They can fool outside observers into thinking that we're a lot more environmentally conscious than we are. Perhaps worse still, they may lead us to fool ourselves.
Which means, even though I have refused to be fooled, the joke is really on me.  How twisted!  It is all because of "symbolic significance fallacy":
 The idea, which grows out of a large body of research on cognitive biases and mental shortcuts, is that we tend to focus far too much on outward symbols (like Prius driving) in judging whether people are energy conscious. As a result, these powerful symbols bias us into overrating certain kinds of seemingly green behavior, and underrating other behaviors that may be quite green, but don't seem that way to us at first glance.
No surprise that I am not viewed as left-of-center, environmental, or any of those labels, which is really who I am.  The price we pay for being rational in this shallow, superficial world :(
What's the upshot of all this? First of all, Siegrist says the results should make us concerned about what he calls "moral licensing": The idea that doing something that is symbolically green, like driving a Prius, licenses you to do other things in your life that aren't (like driving it huge distances).
The bottom-line then?
as we move into a world full of hybrids, electric vehicles, rooftop solar installations, and much else, we should bear something in mind. Energy use calculations may not be very intuitive or easy to carry out, but the fact remains that there is only one way to evaluate whether someone is actually green: Substance.
Focus on the substance?  Crazy talk!  Focus on substance calls for people to engage in the hard work of thinking, which is increasingly rarer than smog-free days in Beijing!


Ramesh said...

Hey - you do practice what you preach . You don't do symbols and that is absolutely right. But you do substance - I can hardly think of one major issue where you do something opposite of what you have espoused as a belief.

That doesn't mean you believe the "right thing", and you will get argued against for that, but even I, in my most cynical moment can't imagine accusing you of not doing what you preach.

So take a bow, my friend.

Sriram Khé said...

Thanks, my friend.

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