This week, Democratic candidates held forth on the environment and humanity’s role in despoiling it. What struck me was the focus on our consumer choices. “From using a straw to eating a burger, am I part of the problem?” Pete Buttigieg asked. “In some ways, yes.”
Lifestyle choices still loom large in the environmental debates of our time. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle set off controversy this year by announcing the they would only have two children because of environmental concerns. (What a comment on Prince William, father of three!) The ginger princeling has gone on to promote the idea of reducing air travel. Not for him personally of course — he has his duties. But the rest of us can “do better,” he said, just after having taken four short-hop private-jet flights in eleven days. Sir Elton John, having satisfied himself with the children he paid a surrogate to deliver, did his knightly duty by purchasing carbon offsets for the prince’s flights. Possibly for as little as $135.
While it is fun to send up the rich and powerful for their hypocrisy on these matters, I think the enduring appeal of their ascetic message in this case is hard-wired in our culture. The West is built on the idea that human sin brought death into the world, and that it still does. We know greed is a sin. Modern abundance can be a source of dysfunction — think hoarders — and shame. America’s high-income earners are drowning in cardboard boxes from online shopping. And there is a certain plausibility to the notion that this abundance is unprecedented and its true costs will be borne by the environment or posterity itself. Most of us vaguely suspect that a little self-denial heals not just the individual soul, but the world around us.
Marketers understand this desire and how poorly thought out it is. Across social media, high-income users are targeted with tons of self-help advice advocating “minimalism” as a lifestyle. This psuedo-philosophy is sold across YouTube and by Instagram influencers. The sales pitch begins with talk of renunciation and simplicity, but it closes with indulgence. It encourages potential practitioners to devote more thought to their choices as consumers. You do with less so that you can do more! Trade mere stuff for meaningful experiences! The target consumer is supposed to vaguely imagine a life where giving up cheap clutter somehow opens enough room in her budget to book a transformational spa day overlooking the snow-dappled mountains in Hokkaido. She is exhorted to “buy fewer, better things” that she “really loves” or that “spark joy” — in other words, to exercise superior self-control and virtue by buying luxury goods.
So one impulse in lifestyle environmentalism is to make more basic modern commodities and goods more expensive — more like luxury goods. That way fewer of them will be produced. The externalization of costs onto the future will be disrupted by being priced in, somehow. The Prince Williams and Pete Buttigiegs of the world will likely not have to reduce their consumption. New, sin-style taxes on unclean energy and more stringent regulation of beef will be navigated rather easily by the rich. They can afford to be ‘minimalist’ and buy experiences, can’t they? Meanwhile these same measures drive the less fortunate to look for yellow vests, pitchforks, or at least the nearest populist running for office.
It’s quite true that thoughtlessness has costs. But it’s a myth that plastic straws are a serious environmental problem, or that paper ones are a very good solution. There are far better ways of reducing the amount of waste, pollution, and plastic that goes into the ocean. Telling those less fortunate than you that the great advancements of food production, air-conditioning, and air travel will have to be withdrawn from them for their own good may provide a momentary thrill for our modern-day preachers of simplicity, but it is, itself, thoughtless. Fewer children, less protein for them, more deaths from heat exhaustion, and less travel isn’t a morally superior future; it’s just a parsimonious and more impoverished one.