Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Moralism, Politics and Recycling

OK, so here are some unsystematic, polemical remarks on the ethics and politics of recycling. Almost nobody--except the cynical corporate marketeers who exploit "green" ideologies for profit--thinks that the individual-level decision to recycle or not will change the world. Whether or not we can stop environmental disaster in the last instance turns on whether or not we can get rid of capitalism. We need "system change, not climate change" as the popular anti-capitalist environmental slogan has it.

The big lie is that making the "green" individual lifestyle  choices (or, what usually amounts to the same thing in capitalist societies: comsumer-choices) are all we can do to stop ecological catastrophe. Sometimes, the big lie assumes a suffocatingly moralistic valence, wherein those who purchase the right goods are virtuous and those don't aren't. This, of course, assumes that "you are what you buy", embraces the atomized, powerless role of a consumer, takes for granted the basic structure of society such as it is, and ignores collective action strategies for social change. This is all well known.

But does it follow that it doesn't matter whether or not you recycle?

I will argue that this conclusion doesn't follow. Of course, I agree that there is no trans-historical, context-insensitive moral obligation to recycle. A lot depends on contextual factors. And, of course, it's better to simply re-use things in the first place but set that aside. My point is that if someone can very easily recycle or not, where there are no immediate costs or burdens associated with doing one thing rather than the other, it's obvious that one has a reason to recycle. That is, you have reason to think that, other things being equal, it's better if your plastic bottle gets recycled rather than deposited in a landfill. To fail to recycle in such a case is, then, simply to fail to do what you quite obviously have reason to do. And that renders you susceptible to criticism by others.

Now, this has nothing to do with politics. Nothing political or momentous hangs in the balance here--whether or not you recycle your bottle has nothing much to do with whether we can do what's necessary to save the planet, that is, defeat capitalism. This is just a rather mundane case of what you have reason to do given certain obvious commitments I think we already have, like "other things being equal, it's better to recycle and re-use things rather than deposit them in landfills." 

Whether we like it or not, we are agents. We can't not act. We have to do something or other. What we do--or don't do--depends on what we reasons there are for doing this or that. Suppose you're at work and you finish drinking a bottle of water--nevermind how you came to have it in the first place--and you decide you have reason to get rid of it. It's taking up room on your desk and you hate clutter. Now, you clearly have reason to get rid of it, but that's not enough to know what exactly you should do with it because there are lots of different ways you could get rid of it. You could, for example, stuff it in the purse of your co-worker who sits ten feet away from your desk. Or you could throw it in a lake outside your building. But you have reason not to do either of those two actions. It would be fucking rude to stuff you trash in your co-workers bag and you think that you have plenty of reasons not to sully the lake with your garbage. If you did either of these two actions you would obviously be susceptible to criticism. Something similar is true of the person who, though she can easily recycle something, fails to do it. You have reason to recycle and, unless you have overriding reason to do otherwise, you should do what you have reason to do--on pain of irrationality.

So when I criticize you, don't feed me a bunch of bullshit about how recycling won't change the world. I never said it would. In fact, as I say above, I think it's a mistake to link large-scale social change with localized, un-coordinated individual actions. But the fact that it won't change the world doesn't mean you're beyond criticism when you fail to do it in many cases.

1 comment:

Richard said...

much the same reasoning applies to green energy and carbon foot print offset programs, like the ones offered by my utility, the Sacramento Metropolitan Utility District

of course, they have a propaganda component as you say, but that doesn't mean that, as individuals, we should make things incrementally worse

also, the issue points towards how capitalism is embracing green measures in order to facilitate its long term survivability, to create new capital accumulation opportunities, and that is what we should be pointing out