Wednesday, 17 March 2010

When Green isn't good

Going green is bad for your moral health. It says so in the Guardian, so it must be true. Perfectly decent people - charitable, kind to their neighbours, honest as the day is long - walk into Sainsbury's and find a pack of organic vegetables calling to them like the fruit in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market "Come buy! Come buy!" And the moment they place it in their basket they are transformed into monsters of selfishness and depravity. Science proves it.

The science comes from Toronto, where researchers Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong invited subjects to mock-buy eco-friendly and non eco-friendly products. Those who bought the environmentally-approved stuff later proved to be up to six times more likely to cheat and steal in an unrelated moral task to do with sharing money. By contrast, those who had been "exposed to" environmental messages, but hadn't had the opportunity to put their eco-thoughts into operation by purchasing something green, exhibited greater moral behaviour in the later task.

These findings were in line with the psychologists' prediction about the "halo effect" of green products and messages. Because environmentalism is generally seen as good and virtuous, hearing a green message will instil in many people a subconscious desire to do good, rather as hearing a sermon might have done in ages past. Indeed, the researchers claim that "people tend to be strongly motivated to engage in pro-social and ethical behaviors if their moral self is threatened by a recent transgression." If they feel guilty, in other words.

Environmentalists know how to target people's guilt feelings about the harm they might be doing to the planet by going on holiday or leaving the TV in standby. But once you've actually gone out and spent your green pound, you're likely feel yourself in moral credit with the universe and thus, perversely, have "permission" to go out and do something moderately wicked. Whereas if you haven't slaked your thirst for do-goodery by purchasing some organic carrots, you might do something else virtuous instead.

What this research doesn't prove, whatever James Delingpole might want to believe, is that committed environmentalists (or socialists, for that matter, about whose belief-system a similar halo effect seems to operate, at least in their own minds) are less moral than eco-sceptics, that "all that ostentatious recycling... is all just a cloak of sanctimony used to hide the rancid mass of pullulating vileness beneath." This may well be true, of course; just as self-consciously religious people often exhibit remarkable bigotry towards others and engage in ugly feuds within their own communities. A true eco-sceptic, meanwhile, would be unaffected by the environmental message in the first place, and would not therefore feel especially pleased with themselves after buying organic produce. But they would no doubt have moral triggers of their own. Rather, the research suggests that human beings in general are caught between self-interest and a desire for moral self-worth. On the one hand, they want to think of themselves as "good" people; on the other, they will do badness if think they can live with themselves afterwards.

The study reminds us, as if we didn't know, that environmentalism occupies an exalted moral status in today's society. That, of course, was why the researchers chose the purchase of eco-friendly products as the "moral" act whose effects on subsequent behaviour they could investigate. As they write, "consumer choices not only reflect price and quality preferences but also social and moral values." It's hardly new information. For many years companies have exploited the halo effect by claiming to be environmentally friendly in the belief that it would boost sales.

David Cameron's early environmentalism - "vote blue to go green" - was part of a similar strategy to dispel lingering notions of the Tories as the nasty party. Being "nasty" and being "green" are widely assumed to be incompatible. It might even be - as per the Canadian study - that having put moral credit in the bank by adopting some token green policies they will be able to draw upon it by embarking on tough policies in other areas without incurring the same opprobrium suffered by the Thatcher government in the Eighties.

In former ages, in many countries, religion occupied the place of environmentalism today. Even in modern secular Britain it has retained some of its moral sanctity, in that people claiming to act from religious motives are given licence to indulge immemorial bigotries. But it used to be much stronger. Perhaps the ultimate expression of the paradoxical moral situation revealed in the Canadian study came during the Crusades: knights believed that going to the Holy Land was a meritorious act, and thus that they had moral and religious permission to indulge their desire to kill as many people as possible. Massacres of whole towns were the inevitable consequence.

The concept of moral permission is a troubling one, philosophically, because it implies that the practice of virtue isn't necessarily self-reinforcing, but may be the opposite. Doing good deeds leads to bad deeds; being an "ethical consumer" frees you to be an unethical colleague, partner or friend. It also has more practical consequences. If the environmental situation is as dire as some experts believe, then green consumerism may turn out to be very bad for the environment, in that it diverts moral resources from the big lifestyle-changes that may be necessary towards small, largely symbolic gestures whose main effect is to make shoppers feel warm and self-righteous inside. On the other hand, it's good news for companies that know how to fulfil people's desire to be good little environmentalists with the minimum pain.

Do Green Products Make Us Better People (pdf)