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The Fool in the Mirror

The Green Generation has arrived!  We recycle; we favor alternative energy; we’re environmentally conscious.  Clearly, we are on our way to saving our planet.

Or maybe we’re not.

But at least we feel really good about ourselves.

That’s what Remi Trudel discovered.  The Boston University marketing professor ran a study in which subjects were asked to sample four different beverages.  With a recycling bin placed nearby, people more often took a new cup for each beverage; when there was no bin, more people reused the same cup.

Paradoxically, the opportunity to recycle increased the production of waste.  In other words, environmental consciousness increases environmental carelessness.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, to learn that people who buy hybrid cars typically increase their driving miles.  From the perspective of human psychology, it seems that conservation is a zero sum game:  if I save here, I’m permitted to indulge there.

Professor Trudel suggests that, for most of us, recycling is more about making ourselves feel good than about being responsible custodians of the environment. If I save a plastic bottle or aluminum can from the county landfill, I can go on consuming with less guilt.  The result is that we become like the dieter who justifies an extra helping of dessert because he used Sweet’N Low in his coffee.

HOW GREEN IS YOUR VALLEY?

Mike Adams of Natural News takes it a step further.  If you sift through a recycling bin, you’re likely to find all kinds of containers for chemical products that potentially do more harm to the environment than the boxes and bottles in which they are sold.  We don’t mind releasing pollutants into the ecosystem in the form of scented laundry detergent, antibacterial soap, and perfume.  Why?  Because we assuage our collective conscience with the knowledge that those plastic and cardboard containers will be turned into packaging for more toxic products.

For decades we’ve been warned about the evils of polystyrene cups.  But many paper cups are not biodegradable; they may cost more to produce, while requiring more raw materials, use more energy, and produce more greenhouse gases.  But, hey, paper feels more eco-friendly.

All this is the natural, if maddeningly irrational, consequence of our national obsessions with feelings.  Motives are important.  Fairness is important.  Perception is important.  Results are largely irrelevant.

That may explain why Al Gore, at the time he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize for chiding the American people for their environmental irresponsibility, was simultaneously living in a mansion that guzzled 12 times as much energy as an average American home.  Presumably, he reasoned that the benefit to the world from his advocacy far outweighed his own environmental rapaciousness.

This kind of inconsistency is not limited to environmentalism.  Repeatedly during his campaign and presidency, Barack Obama promoted increasing capital gains taxes in the name of fairness, even though empirical evidence showed that such increases actually decrease tax revenue rather than raise it.  For decades, California lawmakers relentlessly raised corporate taxes on the most successful businesses, eventually driving many of them out of the state and plunging the economy into chaos.

But at least they can sleep at night.

IF WISHES WERE FORCES

The worldview that values feelings and good intentions over results inevitably fosters a terrifying ideology of utopianism.  On October 11, 2002, former President Jimmy Carter received his own Nobel Peace Prize, in large part for his role negotiating a treaty in which North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear weapons program.  On October 16, just five days later, the United States announced that North Korea admitted to having a clandestine program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.

Many observers continue to wonder how anyone could have believed that the North Korean leaders could be trusted to honor their commitments.  But the idea of peace was just too good to let go.

Social conscience, environmental awareness, world peace — these are all noble ideals.  But the mere desire to make our planet a better place will not make it so.  Indeed, lofty dreams untethered from reality typically produce much more harm than good.

And yet the dreamers continue to dream, unperturbed by either logic or history.

King Solomon ponders:  What use is wealth in the hands of a fool when his heart has no desire to purchase wisdom?

The real challenge is to get the fool to recognize the self-destructive consequences of his folly.  In literature, the Knight of Mirrors forces Don Quixote to see his own madness, but the tragic hero quickly returns to the comfort of his delusions once the looking glass is taken away.

So how do we speak truth to power, when power shows such persistent disdain for truth?

Published in Jewish World Review.


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