The Guilt and Guile of Going Green

07/09/2010 12:57 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Most of us act hypocritically when going green, at least some of the time. Celebrities take a big hit with the most visible transgressions. John Travolta properly advocates against greenhouse gas emissions, but owns a fleet of jets. Barbra Streisand is a vocal supporter of many environmental causes, and her website offers advice on how we can each reduce our carbon footprint. But on a well-publicized tour of England she felt the need to bring along an entourage that would make an army logistician proud, with a convoy of 13 trucks following along, at least as reported in the British press.

While certainly more visible, celebrities are really not much worse than the average Joe on this score. We all have within us a little John and Barbra, proudly promoting conservation while sneaking a solo ride in our gas-guzzling SUV to buy an organic tomato from Whole Foods.

We act this way because we confuse the moral mandate with other more mundane incentives. Yes, we unambiguously have a moral obligation to bequeath to our children a world at least as good as the one we inherited from our parents. But that clear directive offers no guidance on how to accomplish the goal. Problems arise in the details of implementation.

The hypocrisy often associated with going green can be understood best by looking at the early history of the environmental movement. Early activists focused almost exclusively on the moral component while ignoring economic realities. The moral outrage was completely understandable. We were fouling our own nest and as a society indifferent to our plight. Who can forget the searing images of smokestacks spewing poison into the air or mountains of trash spoiling our lands or dead fish floating in the cesspool of rivers so polluted they caught fire? With this undeniable evidence of our wanton disregard for the environment, we were made to feel guilty for our consumption, shamed into caring about our natural resources. We viewed conservation as a sacrifice, a burden to be tolerated, something difficult and inconvenient that had to be done.

That approach can be effective initially, and in fact was, but guilt has no staying power. We eventually run into guilt fatigue. We cannot be "scared straight" into environmentalism. The conservation movement will ultimately be successful when we dissociate moral virtue and environmental protection. The moral component is real, and compelling, but is not enough to sustain progress long into the future.

Going green is today often a mixed affair of hope and idealism confronting the realities of daily living. In the end, conservation will be effective only if properly integrated into the real world needs of family life, work and play. Only a few hearty souls will sacrifice long-term for the sake of others; all the rest of us mortals will become true conservationists when we can do so without serious disruption to our routine. We need to create effective economic incentives that recognize this reality of the human condition.

We in fact know how to create a political and economic environment conducive to conservation, but we lack the political will to change. Something as simple as taxing consumption rather than income would transform society, and fundamentally alter humankind's relationship with the environment. Taxing carbon would be the most effective means of trapping the true costs of production and consumption. But not in my lifetime will we ever implement such a tax. Rather than throw our hands up in despair, we should instead take smaller, less dramatic steps in the right direction.

We can certainly eliminate subsidies for the fossil fuel industry; perhaps the BP disaster in the Gulf will give some incentive in this direction. Well, probably not since the conservative response to the spill is to accelerate more deep drilling even before the technology to prevent future disasters is available. Sigh. We can give more substantial tax breaks and grants to develop alternative green energy sources. We can dedicate greater resources to fund research in energy storage, new battery technology and more efficient transmission systems.

We have a long ways to go. Going green now is often an exercise in frustration because we are forced into making the false choice between doing good and doing well. Until we arrive at the point where individuals acting in their own self interest are at the same time helping to conserve the environment, we will continue to act in ways that seem hypocritical. We can see the possibility of a world in which our behavior might not necessarily change but is compatible nevertheless with true environmentalism. Perhaps in the future we can still drive alone to Whole Foods to pick up a green pepper, but in an all-electric vehicle that we recharge with energy from a local wind farm.

The very fact of our hypocrisy, so common to so many, indicates that our current approach to environmentalism is fundamentally flawed. We are not bad people, just humans struggling to get by, wanting to do good but not always able or strong enough to do so. We need to operate in a political and economic environment that promotes conservation while accommodating our human weaknesses instead of pretending a false virtue. This can be done, and is within our grasp if we have the political will. Until then we will all be guilty of hypocrisy at some level.

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of, "Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World"(Jacquie Jordan, Inc). Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Facebook.