A few excerpts from yesterday’s NY Times article When ‘Green’ Consumers Decide, I’ve Done Enough’ concerning a recent study at the University of Toronto that sought to to answer the question, ‘Are consumers of “green” products more likely to be miserly and thieving?’ Surprisingly enough (or perhaps not surprising at all), the answer appears to be Yes. I hate to keep harping on environmentalism on here – I personally consider a great deal of it to be very admirable and worthy – if only it didn’t illustrate the darker side of the Zeitgeist quite so well, i.e. the double-edged sword of feel-good denial and self-empowerment/-righteousness:
“People do not make decisions in a vacuum,” the researchers concluded, adding that “while mere exposure to green products can have a positive societal effect by inducing pro-social and ethical acts, purchasing green products may license indulgence in self-interested and unethical behaviors.”
[The results can possibly be explained by the] psychological phenomenon known as the “single-action bias,” a term that arises often in discussions of climate change. The Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University in New York describes the single-action bias this way:
“In response to uncertain and risky situations, humans have a tendency to focus and simplify their decision making. Individuals responding to a threat are likely to rely on one action, even when it provides only incremental protection or risk reduction and may not be the most effective option. People often take no further action, presumably because the first one succeeded in reducing their feeling of worry or vulnerability. This phenomenon is called the single-action bias.”
The students in the University of Toronto experiments were not exposed to any perceived threat, of course, but it is possible that their willingness to curtail generosity and resort to thievery was motivated, in part, by having already completed a single, relatively minor action that, to their minds, benefited the world.
And that action, it seems, gave them subsequent license to quietly — and sometimes quite fraudulently — pursue their own private gains. If that is the case, it is perhaps little wonder that neither the practical risks of climate change, nor the moral imperatives attending it, have done much — at least so far — to bring nations together on a solution.