The Frontal Cortex


British papers are fun. The Daily Mail recently ran a deliciously nasty article on hippy-crites, those pious celebrities (like John Travolta, Chris Martin and Brangelina) who talk endlessly about global warming and yet still fly in lots of private jets. Travolta, for instance, recently few by himself from Europe to the United States in a Boeing 707, which can normally hold more than 100 people.

But this isn’t just a problem for celebrities. A new paper in Conservation Biology looked at how the “environmental attitudes” of individuals affected the location of their home in the Teton Valley of Idaho and Wyoming. Ironically, the scientists found that the most environmentally conscious people – they also tended to be older and more educated – chose to live in the most natural areas, and thus had a greater environmental impact on the surrounding landscape. These are the same people who drive a Prius to the local Whole Foods, where they buy organic vegetables and grass-fed beef and carry everything home in a fashionable reusable bag (in other words, they are bougies like me). And yet, because we all want to commune with nature, to have enough land so that we can inefficiently grow our heirloom tomatoes, we end up taking up more land and consuming more resources. I would appreciate the irony if it didn’t so effectively describe the life to which I aspire.


  1. #1 Miranda
    May 6, 2008

    Oh darn it all, well what’s the use then? I suppose a more desirable alternative would be to drive our SUV’s to Walmart and stop for hamburgers at McDonald’s along the way? I get so frustrated sometimes by trying to figure out what’s the “right thing to do” in all of this mess.

  2. #2 Jonathan Rothwell
    May 6, 2008

    Perhaps it’d be useful to have some background on this.

    The Daily Wail (also known to Britons as the Daily Heil, the Hate Mail and Sod Off Warsaw) is a right-wing, populist “upmarket” tabloid newspaper. It claims that there are around four hundred million Polish immigrants in the UK, all of whom are violent child murderers and paedophiles who aren’t being deported, because they don’t want to leave their overcrowded prisons, which are cushy because they actually have breathable air, and electricity.

    Before World War II, it was even more far-right, supporting fascism and racism until the government put its foot down. These days the Mail is more moderate, but still completely cretinous in almost everything that appears in it. For example, it claims all teenagers are hoodie-wearing, drug-taking, gun-toting imbeciles. Who, it also claims, can now do their entire Media Studies course on an iPod, because of exams being dumbed down, like the BBC News, which is being secretly run by the Labour government.

    You get the gist of it.

  3. #3 Jonah
    May 6, 2008

    Look, I still think it’s better to have concerned environmental attitudes. It’s just that, in certain areas (like the Teton valley), these attitudes lead people to consistently choose damaging household locations, precisely because they want to commune with the nature they want to protect. Money buys space from other people. So it’s still better to drive a Prius, and buy humanely raised meat, etc., but it’s even better to live in an apartment with lots of people. (Small households are really bad for the environment.) So get a roommate! Or eight!

  4. #4 Mark P
    May 6, 2008

    A person can live in an environment that is natural and undisturbed except for his own presence without causing any real damage, except to another person’s view of that environment. Certainly it’s possible to criticize that person on the grounds that there are too few truly pristine environments left to allow anyone to move into an otherwise undisturbed one. But that is a different issue from things like carbon footprints and excessive use of resources. The real problem is that too many people would love to do it (love it to death, in fact).

  5. #5 OftenWrongTed
    May 6, 2008

    My aspirations for a life in balance with nature are not without contradictions. Solar power and low amperage lights, ipod, macbook & wifi, composting head, and no plastic bags all makes my small sailboat look green enough until I looked into where the dry-cell batteries in the sailboat and in the hybrid end up every few years. Yup, in the land fill. Solving one problem has lead me to causing another problem.

  6. #6 Barn Owl
    May 6, 2008

    As the famous amphibian philosopher Kermit the Frog sang, “It’s not that easy being green.”

    Hippy celebrities who make any attempts to be environmentally friendly are going to be reviled by the likes of The Daily Mail, no matter what they do. They’ll conveniently ignore someone like Ed Begley Jr., or if they do notice him, mercilessly mock his HGTV program Living with Ed.

  7. #7 Neil
    May 7, 2008

    The Daily Mail is ‘upmarket’ in the same sense as Victoria Beckham is ‘posh’.

  8. #8 Rachael
    May 7, 2008

    Having moved from Phoenix (urban sprawl) to a somewhat compact city in CT, I can attest to a shift in attitude. While in AZ, and while associating with lots of environmentalist, nobody considered that the greatest thing they could do for the environment is get out of the desert. I didn’t figure that one out till I actually moved and realized how large my footprint had been in AZ.

    City living, it’s the way to go…I love NYC for that reason: it might feel crowded or dirty, but on an individual scale, people are much “cleaner” for their small environmental footprint. For example:

  9. #9 jay
    May 7, 2008

    There was a guest speaker at our humanist group meeting, a local professor who talked at great length about environmental choices and the value of ‘planned local communities’ built around home and work. It turned out he lived far out in the woods and he and his wife each commuted about an hour to work.

    DAISNAID do as I say, not as I do.

  10. #11 jayh
    May 8, 2008

    The point about not having kids is true. Extreme cutbacks on lifestyle still changes one’s ‘footprint’ maybe 30%, not having kids makes long term changes in the order of 100’s of percent.

    [and now… a rant:]

    But what this comes down to, and what I find very annoying, is the manipulative quasi-religious psychological pattern that is currently in vogue. I’m not talking about science, or specifically I’m not talking about rational information gathering aspect that is science (which does not make value judgements), but the secular religion mindset that has become the popular movement:

    * Belief that there is an ‘original state’ of grace that is held as an ideal. Like many religious types yearning for the old days, true believers overlook what hell life was back before industrialization,. [I feel thiss is a sort of Panglossian notion about what is ‘optimum’. Consider that if climate change were projected to go colder, we would be having almost the same arguments about humanitarian disaster — suggesting a bit of the Goldilocks effect is at work here.]

    * Belief that there is a fall. An original sin, in this case greed, ‘wanting too much’ (this perception of sin is shared by several religions as well}. By extension ‘not wanting too much’ is held out as a goal, the most noble of human aspirations. [I might argue that the one thing that has made humans different from other animals, gotten us from the heart of the atom to the moon, is that we are indeed never satisfied; that what we have is never enough. That is the most uniquely human of all behaviors.]

    * Gestures of atonement are advocated. Atonement for ‘greed’ is self sacrifice, atonement for having too much is self deprivation. As in the case of religion, these are essentially meaningless rituals, but the person feels that they are ‘doing something’, and gets some reverse pleasure out of their personal sacrifices.

    * As with religion, there is a need to bring others (the lost souls who have not seen the light) into the fold. Proselytizing, getting others to share the ‘joy’ of self sacrifice generally involves projections of guilt and or fear (religion learned millenia ago how useful this tool is), If you can generate a sense of guilt, even in someone who is not personally responsible for problems (like the Christian guilt over original sin), you can manipulate him. Once the guilt process is embedded, the process starts anew.

    I don’t care for such manipulation. I abandoned religion in part because of such manipulation.

    The 20th century, despite all its problems, has made the biggest overall improvements in human life (food production, longevity, medicine, personal comfort) of any century in history. We still have hunger and poverty, but these are a much smaller portion of the world’s population than ever. Aside for special problem spots (war zones etc), at the end of thw 20th the life span in the undeveloped world is now longer than the life span in the British empire at the beginning of the century. And most of this, food production and distribution, science, medicine, living standard has all been directly or indirectly created by fuel and the fuel driven economy. We have problems to address, but I’m not prepared to throw away the past 100 years of human achievements.

  11. #12 Martin Smith
    May 9, 2008

    I wonder whether hypocrite is the best term for such a large group of people. Hypocrisy is defined as the practice of acting outside of one’s stated ideals or values (my own definition, if you will indulge.) Looking at the broader landscape of human progress in the last two decades, I would say that people are largely confused, being thrown into a transitory mental state by the re-emergence of ecological issues, the development of a global market economy and the advent of the Information Age (what I like to call the Intellectual Revolution, given its sociological parallels to the Industrial Revolution and emphasis on commodifying intellectual property.)The natural human reaction to new sensations and an overwhelmed psyche is to fall back to rigid structures and conventions that were in place pre-problem du jour. Hence, the marketing frenzy around “vintage” clothing and Restoration Hardware chic. We are, all of us, trying to figure out our place in a very different world where privacy, among other core values has been ruptured. Hypocrisy and confusion are close cousins.

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