The unbearable hypocrisy of being an ecologist*

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Mark Vellend.

Over the holiday break, my family logged about 2000 km in our gasoline-powered car, loaded with people, luggage, gifts, and ski equipment.  We do something like that four times per year, visiting family east and west.  “Love miles” people call them, and we feel guilty about the carbon emissions, but it’s far less starting from where we live now in Sherbrooke, Québec, than it would be with air travel from where we used to live in Vancouver, BC. And our second car is 100% electric, in a province with “clean” electricity.  So, in terms of our ecological footprint, it’s bad, but it could be worse.

A couple times per year, I use air travel to go to professional meetings of one sort or another.  For 2-3 others I drive or take buses or trains.  I’m pretty sure the flights alone put me well above my yearly fair share of contributions to atmospheric pollution, but I turn down a decent number of invitations, in part because of consumption guilt, and I travel less than many fellow ecologists.  It’s bad, but it could be worse.

Over the past 20 years, my wife and I have travelled by plane to Costa Rica, Panama, Peru and Bolivia, Tanzania, and Malaysia, among other places, with the primary purpose of experiencing the world’s unique ecosystems, flora, and fauna (birds especially).  But for the most part, we try to keep things local, with frequent trips to natural areas nearby.  It’s bad, but it could be worse.

What does any of this have to do with ecological science?

For as long as ecology has been a science, it has been entangled with environmentalism.  Being an academic ecologist does not logically commit one to being an environmentalist, but I’d bet that the vast majority of DE readers have a stronger-than-average environmental conscience.  Without any need for speculation, we can also all see that the conferences we fly to these days often have a major focus on environmental change: all the ecological and evolutionary consequences of human activities, in particular carbon emissions (via climate change) and land-use change.  We step off of carbon-belching planes and proceed to spend several days bemoaning extinctions driven ultimately by carbon emissions.  We sip B.C. wine at dinner, sharing our outrage at the loss of yet more natural habitat to vineyards in the Okanagan Valley.  Of course other scientists (and people of many stripes) fly to meetings and drink wine with friends, but ecologists are in the special position of being directly concerned with downstream consequences of these activities for the natural world.

In this article in The Guardian, I thought Madeleine Somerville captured the gist of what I’m getting at perfectly with the phrase “the unbearable hypocrisy of being an environmentalist” (mostly I’m just re-channelling her article here).  In a recent review of Chris Thomas’ book (Inheritors of the Earth), David Biello captured the essence of many ecologists’ travels: “…a truly strange world in which people fly all over to see rare of declining animals and plants, emitting the greenhouse gases that make those animals and plants extinct”.  Ring a bell?  I struggle with inconsistencies in my thoughts and actions almost daily.

It is entirely possible for an individual to choose to reduce personal air travel to zero, to live in a small communal apartment, to use only public transit, to forego food with a steep environmental cost, and so on.  But hardly anyone is willing to incur the full costs in terms of relationships (e.g., visiting family at the other end of the country), having a job that is fulfilling and satisfying (the reason you’re at this end of the country), or simply doing the things we enjoy most in life (e.g., traveling).  I certainly am not.  Some students seem to come close, but my sense is that adherence to the code of conduct wains as people attain the financial means to start making exceptions.  Thus the hypocrisy, which does indeed feel unbearable sometimes.

So what to do?  I certainly don’t have any good answers to that question.  My main reason for wanting to write about this, apart from a bit of self-therapy, was to hear how others face down their hypocrisy.  Do you feel it?  Personally, I deal with the unbearable hypocrisy by:

  • Owning the hypocrisy, rather than denying it. It’s bad and yes it could be worse.  But how could it be better?  I try to continue to ask that question.
  • Trying to be less judgemental (than I used to be) of people who have made different life decisions, especially when they involve contradictions between actions and stated values. “Judge not.  Before you judge yourself” (Bob Marley).
  • In some cases, replacing professional air travel with online meetings. I’m not quite yet willing to ground myself completely, but maybe one day.
  • Limit second-guessing. If I’ve committed to something I’m unsure about, I try to think more about not doing it again in the future than whether I should have done it the first time.
  • Exercise my democratic right to vote in ways that seem most likely to promote collective environmental responsibility. A great deal of consumption seems to be driven by a general unwillingness of people to forgo what everyone else seems to be enjoying so much (cue Facebook photos of your friend swimming with turtles in a tropical reef), so I wonder sometimes if “top-down” (dis)incentives are the only way to really advance these things.

Anyone else feeling conflicted?

*Title phrase modified from here.


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