The Risk-Monger

Sustainability Bias

In discussions following my last blog on IKEA’s unauthentic concept of sustainability, I coined the term ‘sustainability bias’ to explain my observation of blatant hypocrisy on environmentally sustainable decisions. That this bias is so readily confirmed and reaffirmed by environmental activists with little rational or scientific support comes as no surprise – they are building a movement. What is interesting is how sustainability bias feeds on itself, does not demand a rigorous justification like other decisions and rewards believers with an emotionally green cookie every time their fallacies are strengthened.

Personal environmental choices are always about decision-makers feeling good about themselves. Sustainability as a virtue is anecdotal so it allows us the ability to twist and tweak it to fit our desired self-perceptions. Whether it is on eating organic, recycling, choosing “green electricity” and driving electric cars, we act in such a manner to feel good about ourselves (and if I am saving the planet through my actions, then damn right I should be proud of myself).

But as we are regularly told what is sustainable and how we should act, a certain bias creeps in that begins to influence our decisions. Anecdotes do not need strong arguments and since these are emotional decisions, we settle around lifestyle choices we want to believe are sound, good and admirable. But sustainability bias, like any bias, has a problem when it runs up against critical thought or rational challenges.

The Risk-Monger has often argued about the hypocrisy of such decisions. (In an upcoming blog, I will show how we need to accept that we, as humans, pollute from the moment we fill our first nappy.) If we really wanted to make a serious impact on improving the environment, then two acts should top the list: get the cars off the roads and stop eating meat. Since these two actions are too hard for most of us to countenance, we choose to bathe our decisions in bias: give me a hybrid or electric car and make sure my cows have been grass-fed in a meadow before they are hung upside down and drained. And then we concentrate our feel-good decisions on insignificant and often more environmentally destructive decisions and try not to think of how wasteful we are. Some examples:

Selective product endorsement: My last blog looked at how inherently unsustainable IKEA was, and then drew attention to how little energy we put into criticising them (their sustainability report was even endorsed by WWF and Greenpeace). We are attracted to the taste of Nespresso and pretend that the aluminium encased pods can be recycled and composted. Could we accept that Exxon, Monsanto or Philip Morris could ever do anything good or contribute positively to the local communities? Hardly. Would iNerds take me seriously when I state that Apple has killed more people than Union Carbide had? Unlikely. When consumers want to believe something, there is practically no stopping them with facts.

Pesticides: I don’t know how many times I need to quote Bruce Ames’ famous declaration that there are more carcinogens in a single cup of coffee than in a full year’s consumption of fruit and vegetables with pesticide residues. I am usually met with glazed expressions even as I give people clear numbers (advice: never try to give numbers to story-tellers who live by the anecdotal) and if I have any impact at all, it is usually that people may forego coffee for a day or two. Bias dictates that pesticides are as bad as you can get – so bad in fact that the “organotrons” are willing, instead, to accept a forced reduction of the human global population (declaring that overpopulation is the problem, not their proposed medieval agricultural solution).

Energy: Fossil fuels are bad and renewables (some, but not hydroelectricity) are good. This bias defies gravity. When I ask proponents for solar energy to give me the CO2 LCA to build and dismantle solar panels, I am generally told it is none of my business. When I get a wind advocate (one of the biggest lobby groups in Brussels) to crunch some MW numbers with me on the energy a wind turbine generates compared to a nuclear reactor (and the thousands I would need for each reactor), I am told that nuclear is bad. If there are any actors with integrity, they will accept the miserable math on renewables, but then argue that the next generation of turbines or panels will be more efficient. Fine, with that logic, shouldn’t we just spend our research into developing carbon capture and storage technologies for coal in the meantime? No! Why? “Just ‘No!’ Now go away.”

Recycling: When bias needs emotional protection, we learn to lie to ourselves. Recycling is the tall tale we use as an excuse to consume more but when we bring in such elements as recycling energy use, wastewater and poor qualities of recycled materials, it really makes no sense. If I am told that my nice, new shiny gadget contains (some) recycled materials, it makes perfect sense (“Sold!”). When I try to explain to the “anecdotalists” that the best way to recycle plastic is to burn it (energy recovery), I get a hostile retort that we have to get rid of all plastics (sustainability bias towards glass and steel that risks throwing us back to the 19th century).

I am afraid I cannot get into sustainability bias and the natural-synthetic fallacy at the moment – that subject is too rich and people complain my blogs are too long. That will be a chapter in the Risk-Monger’s upcoming book.

One thing to note is the lobbying force that has been strengthening these biases. Foregoing the ridiculous prejudice that all lobbying is done by evil, polluting industry, we see very strong forces in political capitals support waste management industries, renewable energy producers, smart grid advocates, organic farmers, electric car producers … and they lobby hard to set green consumer standards in their favour, increase subsidies and gain special research funding. This is what I refer to as the “environmental-industrial complex” – if we stop believing that these practices are green, an enormous business element will suffer (and how would the big NGOs be able to keep their members donating?). Just like our irrational fear of evil communists hiding under our beds in the 1950s-60s, it is imperative today for governments, business, the academe and NGOs that we continue to be afraid about the cataclysmic destruction we have performed on our planet. This bias is good for everyone then.

How is bias formed and how do we deal with it?

Bias (even if widely acknowledged to be unjustifiable) can linger over generations (see the plight of women’s rights and LGBT campaigners). It develops when people with bad ideas find ways of getting together and confirming a perception of “correctness”. Regrettably, social media has created an easier way for “irrationalists” to find each other and feel perfectly rational in their perceptions (see an earlier blog of mine). Conclusion: expect more bias roundly confirmed as facts.

Bias is hard to fight on an academic stage as rhetoricians can cleverly find justifications or argumentative tricks to reinforce their narrow thinking. But quite often, people who recognise their bias do not engage in public debate, preferring to lead campaigns where they do not have to listen to those who think differently (the Risk-Monger has regularly offered to speak or debate with activists from Greenpeace to CEO and still his mailbox is silent). Even scientists are finding themselves locked into such cognitive traps, whether it is spending enormous resources to try to prove past declarations were not wrong (think climate research today) or delaying life-saving solutions with the contrived need to fund further research (think golden rice).

So how do we deal with bias? I sometimes feel that ridicule is the best method – if enough people laugh at bigots, the humiliation will have a longer lasting effect than mere rhetorical arguments (the theory behind Archie Bunkerism and a key motivation for me doing this blog). No one likes to be laughed at or satirised so this might motivate such people to be more verbally prudent or hopefully think a little. “Sustainabigots” who show off their electric car to me or explain their self-worth in eating organic usually regret sharing their virtue.

Sadly though, ridicule also signals a certain defeatism – that there is really little else that can be done. Many of us are making fun of Vladimir Putin these days.


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  1. ” If we really wanted to make a serious impact on improving the environment, then two acts should top the list: get the cars off the roads and stop eating meat.”

    Indeed. This is what many environmental activists are preaching AND doing. Your classic mistake when it comes to environmental issues is to consider everything Brussels-based professional activists (somehow an oxymoron…) are saying in an EU context as a reflection of the broader environmental movement. Brussels-based lobbyists tend to be 1. very polite and career-focussed 2. tailor what they say in order to be listened to by politicians who, indeed, don’t want any real action taken because real action would typically mean mesures that would kill any chance for reelection.

    But, talking about bias, I’ve never, ever read you write anything positive – or at least acknowledging they had a point anywhere – about “activists from Greenpeace to CEO”, so I’m not sure how far your pretense of talking above the crowd goes. I think you’re just hating these guys for some reason and using anything you find to attack them. Obviously this won’t bring them to a debate with you…

    1. Good observations Sue. I write on Brussels issues mostly so my focus is from inside the Bubble but I do not see any serious campaigns against cars (Greenpeace attacked VW once as part of its anti-globalisation campaign and WWF has been promoting electric cars – something I feel would be even more environmentally destructive). I suspect there would be very little public support, but unless you are a PR agency, that should not matter. There are enlightened civic councils that work to pedestrianise streets but these are rare cases and there does not seem to be any grassroots lobby force to encourage them. As for meat, I have been thinking of doing some research on the livestock lobby but I think meat consumption is something that is culturally ingrained.
      I have said elsewhere that NGO organisations tend to be very flat in their career paths so ambitious campaigners see career opportunity in Brussels as moving from NGOs into EU agencies and DGs. This removes a lot of the debate and confrontation. My experience though is that when I worked for industry, the environmental activists in Brussels were anything but polite. So you are correct, about ten years ago (at the time of REACH and SCALE), I had several eye-opening and personally unpleasant experiences that highlighted several of these groups as manipulative and ruthless. Ten years later, it is water under the bridge, but today I still don’t feel we should not scrutinise their campaigns because they “mean well” (note my pun).
      About me being rough with GP and CEO, I am merely learning from the best and using their tactics on them. Is there a bias, well, yes – read my introduction (David believes that hunger, AIDS and diseases like malaria are the real threats to humanity – not plastics, GMOs or pesticides. Sadly while these debates get sillier and more scarce resources get diverted into building green temples, more people die of real diseases.). Winning campaigns are great and make people feel good about themselves, but when resources are diverted from development projects to building unscientific green temples, it is not so great. I have been involved for years in several development organisations and, for example, saw firsthand three years ago how funding for a women’s empowerment project in the Philippines from a German aid agency was stopped because they decided to divert the money to a tree-planting project to meet UNFCCC commitments. This is wrong no matter how good some environmentalists feel. In my network, I have heard worse stories of diversion of development funds to climate change projects but I was not involved first hand (biofuel projects, by the way, are still considered as climate earmarks). I have a blog in my computer on how messed up EU funding on African agricultural development is (formulated from an event I was involved in), but I haven’t had the nerve to publish it yet.
      Outside of me admitting in one blog that I am a vegetarian, I do not share personal details of my activism, contributions and political campaigning (I fear it would not help their causes). Better to have people think me a monster for attacking “innocent” organisations that are taking far too big of a slice of the pie. That pie can do many more positive things but here is the rub: who am I to declare which of the development projects is more deserving than another??? – all I know is that there is so much need and the pie is getting smaller. You may interpret that as my writing nothing positive … but when a boat is sinking, you work on plugging the holes.

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