Not long ago I was out at a dinner of climate activists, at the beginning of a conference I was at, and as we were climbing into the car of one of the program leaders, there was talk about whose car was messier. This is a competition I always win – I mentioned to them that not only do I have little kids in my car, messing it up, but I drive goats around in my Taurus.
Several people asked me why I drive goats in a car, (which even to me seems like a reasonable question). The answer is that I am a farmer with goats, but I don’t have a pick up truck, so when they go to be bred or to the vet, they travel in the front seat, sometimes with their heads hanging out the window.
Why don’t I have a pick-up? Don’t all farmers have to have a truck? I admitted a truck would be a nice thing. As it is, a few times a year, we barter for use of a truck with a friend of mine in trade for our pasture for her sheep. It is a bit of hassle to have to put down newspaper for the goats in the car, and to be reliant on my friend’s truck when we want to take poultry to the butcher or get hay. But we are trying to live in a comparatively low resource life, and I know that if we owned a truck, we’d use it a lot more than we do. By not owning one, we make sure that when we use a low-mileage vehicle, it is really necessary.
The other speaker, who was a scientist from the CDC, and an expert on the medical implications of global warming was kind of mystified and skeptical that the inconvenience of this would be worth it. Like most climate scientists I know, he didn’t seem to believe that personal actions matter that much – and there’s something to be said for his case. In the great scheme of things, whether I have a truck or not isn’t very important. I could drive my goats around with the a/c running and the windows down in a Hummer, an it wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket in world climate emissions. And yet, I think it does matter – not just for me, but in general.
The very first time I was asked to do a public presentation on peak oil and climate change, one of the people in the audience, an older man, stood up and said to me, “Look, you may be right, this sounds right. But a lot of people sound right, and I just want to know why I should believe you. I don’t know whose papers to read or how to read them for the science – I never took a lot of science in school, and that was 50 years ago. What I want to know is if it is true, why don’t the people who say it is true act that way? I’ve been hanging my laundry out on the line for 40 years and more, and my wife just got us a dryer. Now you are saying I shouldn’t use it. And I won’t if you can show me a climate scientist out there with his underwear out on the line.”
Now logically speaking, whether any given climate scientist hangs his laundry, runs it through the dryer, or delights in the feeling of damp shorts is really not the point. It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference to whether his computer models are correct. Whether a climate scientist drives an SUV or takes the bus makes no difference to the data revealed by her ice core samples. This is a red herring.
And yet, it isn’t just a red herring. The perception of fairness and justice is a really big deal for people, and to underestimate its importance, I think, misses a central point. This guy was saying that he’d consider giving up some of his luxuries – but only if he felt that the people who were demanding he do so were also giving them up.
There’s considerable psychological research that suggests that fairness matters an awful lot to us. In one paper published in Nature a study used a “Prisoner’s Dilemma” type game in which one recipient receive painful shocks, to show whether our empathy for people’s pain is affected by how we perceive the fairness of their actions. All participants found less empathetic response when the person getting the shocks was acting unfairly. In men, it was found that not only were they not feeling empathy, but they received pleasure thinking that someone was getting revenge.
Other research suggests that people will even act against their own interests in order to avoid perceived unfairness – and in fact, we can see this in many debates on social welfare policies. Many of the people who oppose these programs are among those who would benefit the most from them – the American health care debate is a good example. But the sense that others would benefit unfairly or more than they is so troubling to them that they often oppose the program, despite the fact that it would help them.
Similarly, historical evidence suggests that things that seem completely impossible to us now, things that no one believes would be politically palatable, actually may be politically palatable if they can be reframed in terms of fairness. Amy Bentley, whose book _Eating for Victory_ focuses on food rationing and the relationship of food to World War II observes that food rationing was actually fairly popular during World War II. This sounds very strange to our ears – who believes that some form of rationing would be politically viable? And yet, it was – because it was largely framed in terms of fairness. Women worried that without rationing, limited supplies of meat or sugar would be bought up by others, or that prices would rise out of reach due to scarcity. Rationing ensured a fair share for everyone, and thus, after rationing was lifted, a substantial portion of the populace felt it had been liefted too soon and were willing to consider reinstatement.
The same thing is true of 1970s gas rationing – in areas where gas was rationed, people reported lower degrees of concern about gas access and greater degrees of happiness. No one liked waiting in line to buy gas, but what really worried them was the idea that someone would get there before them and they wouldn’t be able to get any gas. A program that made sure they were being treated fairly meant greater degrees of security.
And this is what I detect in the question that man asked me – this quest for fairness. This is what underlies the anger that many people feel about Al Gore’s house – no, they know that the former vice-president isn’t going to live in a hovel – but they feel that if Gore is going to call for constraints and changes in their life, that he should enact them, that there’s something wrong with calling for restraint in others and not showing it in your own life.
This plays out at more than the personal level – this is precisely the battle that is going on at the international level. The question of how we are to distribute the burden of dealing with climate change may, in the end, be the deal breaker. Russia, China, India and other nations of the Global South call out “foul!” when nations like Britain, Australia, the US and Canada want to continue to emit vastly more per person than they do. The US whines that there’s nothing they can do without China, because there are so many people there, and it isn’t fair. Ultimately, this plays out as a vast game of chicken that is, at its root, about fairness. And if someone seems to be getting off unfairly, well, we’ll let the whole world go to hell rather than have that happen.
It is true that this doesn’t really make much sense, but I’m not at all convinced that a rational argument about why things don’t have to be fair will ever affect most people’s deep-seated need for fairness. Assuming that we really should be rational beings all the time never has worked yet. Ultimately, I suspect that we’re going to have to accept this – for a chunk of the population, perceived fairness will always outweigh everything. Even though climate scientists could reasonably say it is more important that they go to conferences and compare data than it is that Steve down the street go see Granny twice a year in Cleveland, the reality is that it certainly isn’t more important to Steve. Even though it doesn’t matter even a tiny bit for total emissions whether I fly to Georgia or take the train, whether my goat goes in the front seat or in the pickup, it matters. And so I put my ass on the train for 22 hours, and put down the newspaper for the goat.
This is not fun – who enjoys extra work? Nor is the fact that when we do get something unfair, we must cop to it – this is why people get pissed off that I have four children, and at a certain point I can only say “you are right, it isn’t fair – I can’t do anything about it, I wouldn’t if I could, but you are right, it isn’t fair.” Climatologists and activists do important work, and there’s a real case to be made that people need to see and hear them – so if you have a really good reason to fly around the world, fine. But don’t pretend that it is your special right – admit that it isn’t optimal, cop to it and don’t pretend that your business and importance justifies it.
That sort of thing just pisses people off, because they work long hours too – even at their unimportant, boring jobs. They don’t have enough time even in their ordinary lives. And the things that matter to them, matter to them. If they are being asked to sacrifice – and they are – those sacrifices will have to go across the board. Not because we can’t afford a few thousand climate activists and climatologists getting to use a bit more energy, but because we can’t afford the stigma of unfairness or hypocrisy. And yes, it sucks badly that you have to prove that the climate is changing rapidly, hang your underwear and deal with climate deniers who make money to write bullshit. But sucking doesn’t make it less true.
I think it enormously unlikely that we will respond to climate change as we must. But if we do, it will only happen if people see themselves as part of a story in which the distribution of discomfort and trouble is done fairly, and they are ensured a fair share. Fairness may not be logical, but it is essential.