Those environmentalists are such a bunch of Kants!

There is now a web-based “game” called Consumer Consequences where you can set up your very own avatar (kinda fun) and then answer survey-like questions about your lifestyle, e.g. shopping and transportation habits, do you recycle, do you turn off lights (super fun). The kicker is that the game then calculates how many “earths” it would take to sustain a population that consumed resources just like you. My own score was 5.1 earths.

I’m sure that American Public Media, (full disclosure: I start work for them soon) the organization responsible for the game, has gotten lots of email about it, taking the questions to task – for example, the concept of “food miles”. You get a better score if you eat locally grown food, because it takes fewer miles to get to your table. OK, but I’ve heard that while that may be true, locally grown food may “cost” more in energy per calorie because of the inefficiencies of smaller farms compared with evil agri-business, as well as regional differences (Spain is a better place to grow tomatoes than Ontario). People are, I’m sure, angry that the game simplifies so much of the debate on consumption and energy use.

I dunno. That’s not my problem. Whatever other complexities there may be, the game has made me think about turning off lights more. and I like my “trash” score. Go the Minneapolis recycling program!

My problem is with Kant.

There are lots of expressions of the categorical imperative. But the one that I remember from PHIL101 is: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

Basically: if everyone acted like you, then where would we be, hmm? This is the principle behind the Consumer Consequences game – It would take 5.1 earths to support 6.5 billion me’s, but gee, we only got the one, buddy, so think about wha’cher doing, there.

So what! We’re heterogeneous! There aren’t, thank God, 6.5 billion me’s.

If all 6.5 billion people played this game, the average of their score wouldn’t be 5.1, it would be 1.0! This must always be true because there are only 1.0 earths! And no matter how environmentally friendly our behaviour becomes, the average of everyone’s scores will still be 1.0.

And I know what they’re trying to get at – don’t you get it, you fat american, that you cause way more damage to the earth than your average Indonesian? That they suffer the consequences of your consumer choices more acutely that you do? Sure I get that. I just think that we should bring more nuance to the debate than pointing out how slovenly I am in view of the sheer number of planets I’m gobbling up.

Kant’s ethical yardstick just bothers me: no two situations, no two people are the same – when you get down to a person’s specificity, universal laws don’t make too much sense. If you are a 23-year-old american male living in Minneapolis and are a vaguely liberal, crunchy sort of guy and are 6’2 and living happily with your girlfriend of 3 years, and having just eaten pie for breakfast and read the sunday, september 23rd 2007 New York Times except for the business and travel sections, basically, for everyone out there who is me, right now, WRITE A BLOG. How’s that for universal, Kant?

I think that the game’s fine, that it raises awareness, blah blah blah. But we’re not going to guilt people into making good environmental choices. We’ve got to stack the incentives so that people are better off making choices that are good for the environment. Make consumers pay the true cost of the goods they buy, and their priorities will change.


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