Fairness, Personal Action and Al Gore's House

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.


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There's another factor in addition to fairness. The behavior in question conveys that the listener should feel free to treat the message as amusement rather than a cause for action, inasmuch as the scientist or spokesperson doesn't believe in it strongly enough to act on it him- or herself. With respect to this context, it is, after all, rather less than an urgent necessity of life to jet halfway round the world to a pleasant place on the excuse of hearing somebody mumble inaudibly and incomprehensibly through a paper you've long since read in preprint. (Sorry, but in my experience few scientists or engineers are worth anything as public speakers. Given the continued ubiquity of nineteenth-century "conferences", you might think that a one-semester Theater 001 or Public Speaking 001 practicum would be in the required curriculum, but in general you'd be utterly wrong.)

Since it's not feasible for most people to judge matters of this sort on the (occasionally proprietary and secret, and nearly always numbingly complicated) data, or on the quality or lack thereof of the magic computer models, they're left to judge on the basis of whether the bigger picture fits together. As with fairness, this will be for them a social question - turning on, for example, whether the speaker's behavior and that of his or her tribe aligned with the message, or not - rather than a scientific one turning on data or models neither seen nor understood. It's a bit disconcerting that the scientists and spokespeople who have come forward so stridently seem so clueless on this point.

Amen. Apparently Sir Paul McCartney recently flew a private jet to some green event to tell people to eat less meat. For some reason I have been badgered to personally defend this. Well, I can't.

Why don't you buy a trailer?

I've noticed that the people who tell me that I have inspired them to make a change always tell me they make the change because they see I am walking my talk.

One TV (not used much). One computer. Heat with wood that I cut and split myself. Eat a lot of fish that I catch myself. Have horses living in my back yard. It's not political, it's just the way I live. Walk tall and don't feel you have to explain.

Sharon, and PaulS,

I understand and agree that perception of fairness is probably one of the important factors causing a divide about responding to climate change.

As for the gentleman and his concern about the scientist's underwear, I think there is another word that describes his concern - honesty. If what is reported, what the scientist deals with, is "truth", then it follows that it must be true for everyone. If the scientist knows extravagant use of energy contributes to ecological risk - then why isn't the scientist restraining his/her own use of energy? If the scientist doesn't think "the truth" applies to her/his life, then how much should we trust that person's work, if their morality is so "flexible"?

If the scientist presents "findings" or "conclusions", and goes on his/her own way unaffected, and unmoved by his/her own report - how compelling, how "true" can that result be?

Is the scientist's report true, or not? If it is true, how could it not be true for everyone, equally true that is. If burning coal, today, is known to be a dangerous activity, it follows that it is, today, dangerous everywhere, regardless of what happened yesterday, or how rich or poor the nation.

When you play with what is true for one, but not applicable to another, that is an issue of fairness, to be sure. But it is also a matter of honesty, of raising questions about what is true, about whether to respect and respond to someone that you question the truth of what she/he says.

I guess honesty and truth concerns could just be triggers for fairness concerns, but they present a simpler explanation for the question about the scientist's underwear, er, clothesline.

that same gap between talk & walk is why I lost respect for a certain aging Hollywood celebrity who has been outspoken about the need for change to protect the environment, but refused to give up driving his fast car across the desert.

How can hypocrites expect to be effective leaders?

I think you're totally right --- we all have to lead by example. There's no real point in telling people what to do if we can't show them what to do with our actions.

On the other hand, I think that everyone should get one or two free passes, as long as they admit that they're falling short of the glory. You have four kids; we haven't yet hooked up our wood stove so we're running on electric heat this week. It's not optimal, but sometimes things slide!

About fairness: the only problem with making the changes mainly in one's own life is that it can lead to sanctimony. It is easy to let myself off the hook by thinking, well, I'm using less energy than 80(or 90, or 95) percent of my fellow Americans. It's ok for me to fly to the Bahamas this year, or drive to the ski slope every weekend. I'M not the one causing global warming, and I love to ski. (I'm not implying that you think this way, it's more a reflection of an attitude I sometimes see in myself and friends.)

I want to second orion's suggestion of a trailer. We've always used trailers with our smallish cars - a Toyota Corolla wagon, which is no longer available in the US, and now, a Subaru. When our last trailer wore out we found a great aluminum 5x8 with a stake bed made somewhere near Old Forge. Although, the goat would get a bit cold at this time of year.

There are far better explanations for the behavior of high-consuming scientists than that they are being dishonest and that their work is not "true". The idea that practically everyone in several fields of science is a participant in a grand conspiracy, and that thousands are devoting their whole research lives to inventing and publishing lies, is ridiculous. Scientists are human beings just like everyone else and are affected by the same psychological factors: inertia, lack of leisure time needed to implement changes, a strong attachment to what are seen as basic physical comforts, an unwillingness to threaten one's social standing by underconsuming, the feeling that so long as everyone else is devoted to BAU your choosing to deprive yourself will do no good.

Frankly, that is why I think a carbon tax is the best option. It provides pressure on everyone to consume less, and if proceeds were used for mitigation and adaptation efforts, those who were willing to make sacrifices would at least know that those who weren't were going to be made to contribute in some other way to mitigation of the problem.

There is another way to look at fairness, however, which is that there is no guarantee that life is fair. Those of us who profess to be adults, to take full responsibility for ourselves, cannot let ourselves off the hook by saying that it is not fair for us to change because (supposedly) no one else is, or because the people who tell us what we need to do aren't doing it themselves.

I am in the process of learning to live with much less fossil fuel use, trying to minimize the discomfort as much as I can and learn to live with the discomfort that remains. I don't feel comfortably warm in a 55F house, although I can function. But most days in the winter, that is now what the thermostat is set to, as I am learning to take full responsibility for myself and my actions.

I don't mean to say that we shouldn't promote the idea of using a fair share of the world's resources; in fact, I agree with this and am trying to learn to live on my fair share. I'm just saying we can't use someone else's lack of living on their fair share as an excuse for our own inaction.

As a person with a PhD in chemistry, I will second dewey's analysis of why we see few scientists walking their talk on the climate issue. Scientists are well-paid and subject to all the unspoken norms to consume that any well-paid person is subjected to; I was when I was employed in the field, and although I resisted a little, I did not feel it possible to resist past a certain point. But again, we can't use this as an excuse for our own inaction. It isn't fair, but that doesn't matter.

Scientists are well-paid? Bwahahaha. Oh, well, maybe chemists are. :-)

Our living room has been under 55 most of the winter so far and I've actually gotten quite comfortable with it. It's when it drops to the low 40s that it really sucks!

This argument makes me crazy. There are so very many examples in environmental studies that prove how much impact the cumulative actions of individuals have. Take the recent Sea Otter plague off the coast of California; the otters were showing up with cat parasites from the cumulative effect of everyone's flushable kitty litter. Non-point source pollution is a bigger problem in San Francisco Bay than point-source is, because point-source is regulatable, and non-point source isn't.

Why in the world would climate be any different?

There may have been an evolutionary advantage to this desire for fairness.

A couple years back I listening to an intro to psych lecture series by prof Paul Bloom of Yale which was a part of Yale's open online courseware (available online for free! go check 'em out. his lectures are awesome!)

In one of his lectures, he says that if there were a truly rational agent and if you go to that person and say "Here I have 10 dollars that belongs to neither of us. But if you're willing to take $1, I get the other $9, but if you refuse we both get nothing," the rational agent should always accept the $1, because it is always logically better than $0.

Therefore such a theoretical rational agent would be completely robbed of all available resources via a series of such questions once even one person figures out that the rational agent is a prisoner to this kind of reasoning.

I personally feel that irrationality plays a pretty crucial role in self-preservation, and would've been highly conserved by evolution.

Hypocrisy. That's the word. You and vt hit it. Sure it's about fairness, but really the better term is hypocrite. If it's really important that we all use less fossil fuels, then people who tell us but don't do it themselves are being hypocrites.

We broke down and bought the beat up old small truck (that gets better mileage than new ones!), but got the trailer first. We don't live on our land. We drive to it. It's within biking distance (~2hrs), for emergencies, but not close enough to bike regularly. We didn't want to give up our fuel-efficient lifestyle in the city (we both bike to work), and there was no land to buy in town. We offset the trips to the land by planting trees, which we can verify are growing.

The truck takes care of a big problem - certain times of the year the car (AWD Subaru) gets stuck in the mud, but the truck doesn't. The truck mostly gathers dust the rest of the year. We're putting less than 1k miles/yr on it.

As for your kids, if you're keeping your family's carbon footprint small, there's no problem. We stopped at two, but I don't fault anyone for having more while the US is around replacement birthrate level overall. OTOH, it drives me nuts when the US says China is the world's biggest polluter. What self-serving malarkey. They're also the world's most populous nation. They produce about 1/5 the per capita GHG pollution that we do. It's hypocritical for us to say anything to them when we pollute more than they do per person.

I can't see why there isn't a proposal for total emissions equity - per person and globally - where each individual can sell their unused excess to others (ie corporations). Surely this would both be totally fair and act as a transparent way to transfer wealth to the global south...as well as rewarding those in the industrialized world who wish to change their behavior for the better...

By subgenius (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

PaulS wrote: "The behavior in question conveys that the listener should feel free to treat the message as amusement rather than a cause for action, inasmuch as the scientist or spokesperson doesn't believe in it strongly enough to act on it him- or herself."

Even Amy and Juan were sniggering on Democracy Now about Bill McKibben jet-setting around the globe to stir up protest wrt 350 ppm. The other question begged by the protests was: How much of a carbon footprint did the protestors create getting there, leaving all their garbage strewn about, and getting home?

Any person who claims moral high ground about any problem becomes a candidate for the most microscopic scrutiny. Not really because the potential for hypocrisy means that what they're advocating is false, but because those who "call them on it" are just looking for excuses to justify their own bad behavior, while pretending to be morally superior.

Honestly, does the fact that Al Gore has a carbon footprint bigger than some whole towns mean that AGW is false and that the rest of us can keep burning fossil fuels with abandon?

Additionally, for someone to have any credibility, they must lead from the front, as Claire pointed out. At the same time, there is the risk of sanctimony, as was also noted above.

What it all boils down to is the easiest moral code to express, but perhaps the hardest to live by:

Do as you would have others do.

I wonder what the derivative market for cap and trade vouchers is going to look like? Creating artificial chits for how much carbon a person can emit is no more fair than any other system, especially since it will likely lead to counterfeiting, back-room dealing, and all the other problems that come from currency exchange. Because thatâs all that cap and trade vouchers are: a form of currency backed by an arbitrary size limit to a personâs carbon footprint.

I remember a scene from one of those 70âs-era mini-series about the American west, I think it was Centennial. There was land allocation where each person over 21 years of age could get an acre. A mother wrote the words â21 years of ageâ on the soles of her childrenâs shoes, then swore on the bible to the magistrate that her children were âover 21 years of age.â

On the one hand, she was wrong for cheating, because the land her children got was denied to others who really had ridden more than 21 times around the sun. On the other hand, why should her children, who were just as likely as anyone else to use the land productively when they got a couple of years older, be denied a âfair shareâ just because they hadnât passed some arbitrary age limit?

This doesnât mean that nothing will solve the problem of harmful (to human life as we know it) levels of carbon in the atmosphere. Itâs just a reminder that one personâs claim of fairness is another personâs percieved injustice.

By billygroats (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

George Monbiot has proposed (and I would support) a tradable rationing system, where everyone gets a share and *can sell it* - no black markets. This, IMHO, would be an excellent form of wealth redistribution, since the poor already use less - gradually lower limits, while giving those who conserve tangible dollars. IMHO, this makes an awful lot of sense.


The tradable rationing system would also help to redistribute energy use from places where less energy is needed for heating and/or cooling to places where more is needed. Let's say someone in California manages to eliminate the need for heating and cooling - something relatively easier to do for many people in California than it is elsewhere. That person can sell their credits to someone in, say, New England who needs them for some supplementary heat in winter, or someone in Florida who needs them for cooling in summer. This helps with what I consider a flaw of the equal shares for everyone option: depending on where a person lives, the need for energy is not equal, even after applying all the extreme conservation measures possible.

Gore's house isn't the whole story; he is also profiting from his viewpoints. While this may be a red herring, it also may not be and it may influence him in ways he is unaware of or create bias he can't offset. An anology would be a lawyer or business person in a conflict of interest. The conflict may not effect their judgment but the possibility is there. More importantly in Gore's case, it clearly does effect public perception and therefore actually damages his cause.

My goats ride in the back of my 18 yr. old Volvo. I have a truck too. It's cold and windy in the bed. Besides, I would miss the conversation. It is the only chance they get to listen to satellite radio. The goat berries give the kids something to throw at each other on long trips.

Also, I'd stack my six kids and your four up against the 2.5 of any subdivision dweller. They know about their carbon shoe size and how to maintain it.

By Keri Jo Rinke (not verified) on 02 Jan 2010 #permalink

My goats ride in the back of my 18 yr. old Volvo. I have a truck too. It's cold and windy in the bed. Besides, I would miss the conversation. It is the only chance they get to listen to satellite radio. The goat berries give the kids something to throw at each other on long trips