My Friend in Oil Exploration, and Other Environmental Moral Dilemmas
I recently learnt that a friend from university is now working in oil exploration. I did not take the news well. After my initial judgmental gut reaction, my next thought was along the lines of, “Well, surely this sort of thing shouldn’t affect friendships?” And yet, it kept on troubling me. Every time I saw him, it felt like there was an oily elephant in the room, a petroleum pachyderm that was impossible to ignore.
There are several reasons why I couldn’t just shrug it off. The first was that, since I work in environmental policy and communications, it felt like he was directly countering all the good I was trying my hardest to bring into the world. It wasn’t some faceless cackling oil baron making sure my efforts were all for naught; it was my friend. Secondly, it just seemed like such a waste, such a backward step for somebody with such talent and potential to essentially devote their time to making the world a worse place to live in. And thirdly, it felt like a direct contradiction to the values that I had assumed we shared.
Most friendships — indeed, most interactions — work on the principle of shared values. I am fairly certain, for instance, that my close friends think similarly to me about human rights, equality and the environment. We all act in a broadly similar way when confronted with any situation with a moral component, either practically or hypothetically. I don’t believe in separating politics from friendships; one’s political view essentially dictates how one thinks people should be treated, and if a friendship is anything beyond superficial then significantly differing viewpoints are essentially incompatible. For example, if you think homeless people ‘deserve it’, we’re probably not going to hit it off.
But this does not mean it’s a good idea to raise the drawbridge against differing opinions — they are all worth considering at some level. If we want to glean any understanding of how the world works, we must remember that our own viewpoint is not guaranteed to reflect the thoughts of the wider population. Working in communications, a lot of my time is spent thinking about how other people see the world. While this approach certainly helps appreciate other perspectives, it doesn’t always lead to answers. I still can’t really explain why so many upstanding, well-educated people continue to consume meat, fly to package hotels and drive 4x4s; but I can at least make suggestions.
Good Old Cognitive Dissonance
The most likely explanation is that our values do not always reflect our actions. This is certainly true of myself: I know that dairy products are usually linked with animal suffering, that single-use materials are resource-heavy and polluting, and that cacao farmers are often mistreated; yet I have been known to occasionally buy a chocolate bar. Do I think about all these things when I’m munching on a Crunchie? Sometimes, but to be honest, not always.
The phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’ is bandied around a lot in this sort of scenario, but often in quite a trivial way. It’s essentially a quick way of appeasing the conflict between our values and our actions, our brain’s self-defence mechanism that stops us collapsing under the weight of our own hypocrisy. There’s a fair bit of solid science behind the phenomenon, and it is only given strength by the fact that our actions and their effects are now often so separated. This is where the real heart of the matter lies: we have built a world where it is impossible to match up our actions with their consequences.
This then raises the question of where sympathy ends and blame begins on the spectrum of environmental misdemeanours. While it’s true that the real world is complex, most Westerners are aware to some degree of the potential negative impacts of their actions. Should people be blamed for eating sausage rolls, when Greggs’ vegan version is right there? Should people be blamed for jetting to Ibiza, when apparently Blackpool can be lovely in the summer? Should people be blamed for picking their kids up from school in a gigantic gas-guzzler, when there are reasonably-priced hybrids available? It’s difficult to say, no matter how we frame it. Every scenario has its own nuances, its own variables. I would argue that the threshold falls somewhere between buying a chocolate bar and choosing a career in fossil fuel extraction — but that still leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre.
Monkey Brains in a Complex World
It’s astoundingly complex to fathom any sort of moral landscape in the modern world. Back in prehistory, morality was a lot clearer: smashing your cave neighbour’s head in with a club was considered bad form (unless the neighbour was asking for it), whereas sharing the spoils of the latest hunt (or gather) was rewarded. Even up until a few hundred years ago, the average person would still know the land where their food was grown, the origin of the materials that clothed them, and what fuelled their transport system (mostly grass, and the odd carrot if there had been a good harvest). Now — as explored eloquently in both Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century and Netflix’s The Good Place — making moral decisions has become a lot more difficult, as cause and effect have been scattered by the complex circuitry of globalisation.
When pressed, my fossil fuel friend had a few excuses ready to justify his decision. First came the nebulous: “If it wasn’t me, somebody else would do it.” This was followed by the favourite of anti-divestment stakeholders everywhere: “It gives me the chance to change things from the inside.” And, to top it off, the infamous free-market fallacy: “It’s only responding to demand.” None of these convinced me in the slightest; I could feel the neuronal jury in my mind all grimly shaking their heads, the synaptic judge readying his gavel. But then I realised that, although none of them were good reasons, they were — nonetheless — reasons. They were reasons being reinforced by his colleagues (and paycheque) on a daily basis, just as my colleagues consistently support the case for environmentalism. This isn’t an excuse for his actions — but it does go some way to explaining it.
A Short Aside on Extinction Rebellion
If it’s so easy to pull the wool over someone’s eyes, could that have happened to me? I have been attending the latest bout of Extinction Rebellion protests in London, which are perhaps the most life-affirming and uplifting events that I have ever attended. It is immensely cathartic to find yourself amongst hundreds of thousands of people that not only share your values but are willing to stand up for them. But then, reading the paper on the train home, I found us described as ‘zealots’, ‘hippies’ and — by the UK’s very own glorious leader — ‘uncooperative crusties’. Had I been hoodwinked into some kind of mass delusion based on positive reinforcement? The answer is: no. The reason is: science. Hopefully that clears that up.
Naming, Shaming and Blaming
Climate change is a real spanner in the works when it comes to morality. The entire concept is so frustratingly vague — we can’t directly see it happening, we can’t accurately tot up our individual contributions towards it, we can’t even precisely predict its implications — that it provides fertile grounds for the germination of cognitive dissonance. We are constantly fed information (and misinformation) about what is good and bad for the planet, what is worthwhile and what is pointless. Very little of it can we directly see with our own eyes.
And this is why I think the blame game isn’t the way forward. Extinction Rebellion is of a similar opinion. Of course, people are ‘to blame’ — but let’s face it, we’re designed to hunt woolly rhinos and identify poisonous berries, not manage the million-faceted melange that is the climate crisis. Sure, we’re incapable, weak-willed and slaves of immediate gratification, but wallowing in this acknowledgement gets us nowhere. So, coming back to my friend, who is potentially right now identifying some new promising spot to send in the drills: do I blame him? I guess not — but I would invite him to cease and desist, and use his abilities to do something decent instead. But he has his reasons, even if they’re flimsy, just like the rest of us. I can forgive, if not forget. I might even — numbers permitting, of course — consider inviting him to my birthday party, where I’m sure he’ll feel right at home with all the zealots and hippies that I call friends.