Q. Dear Umbra,
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has a huge platform and a rapt audience, and she’s already shown signs of building a real, effective movement on climate change. Should she try to make more of a publicly visible effort to live a climate-conscious lifestyle — like, say, committing to flying and driving less?
— Is My Heroine A Hypocrite?
A. Dear IMHAH,
I’m going to assume this question stems from the New York Post story that meticulously and gleefully cataloged the “gas-guzzling” habits of outspoken environmental advocate and Green New Deal co-parent Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: taking Ubers over public transit, flights over trains, and, ah, not composting sweet potato peels.
It’s important to recall that these types of attacks on those who are vocal about climate action are common. Climate skeptics have hooted for years and years about former-Vice-President-turned-climate-hawk Al Gore’s climate hypocrisy: living in big, sprawly houses and flying around the world to show his Inconvenient Truth slideshows and films.
“How can he tell us to care about climate change when his carbon footprint is so much bigger than ours?” went the conservative chorus. “If he won’t change, why should we?”
The hypocrisy argument is a rhetorical weapon, usually wielded by conservative opponents of environmental or climate regulation. According to an analysis published in the journal Frontiers in Communication, there’s basically a three-pronged strategy behind these kinds of accusations:
- to frame environmental change as an individual rather than a political problem
- to tie climate consciousness to self-sacrificial asceticism
- to plant the idea that these advocates are pushing for climate action purely for self-promotion
And it’s easy to see how this approach could be perfectly tailored to take down Ocasio-Cortez. She’s already closely scrutinized by conservatives for essentially not being poor enough and not sacrificing enough. Opponents of the huge, anti-capitalist political shift to reduce emissions that Ocasio has come to symbolize would love to reveal false pretenses behind her meteoric rise. And, of course, she wants to use political power to transform American society in a potentially remarkable way.
Ocasio-Cortez dismissed the Post’s accusations by highlighting how American society has been shaped by government and businesses alike to be a very, very carbon-intensive system, and criticizing those who operate within it is a distraction. “Living in the world as it is isn’t an argument against working towards a better future,” she tweeted.
So should Green New Deal fans consider the tabloid takedown of Ocasio-Cortez just a political ploy? Mostly yes, but with a little bit of no! Although the Rupert Murdoch-owned Post seems pretty obsessed with bashing the young congresswoman, the driving question behind the article’s litany of eco-transgressions is a legitimate one that plagues American environmentalists every day: How does one live in such a wasteful, energy-intensive society without being a hypocrite?
As I’ve written in the past, trying to weigh individual vs. societal-level climate accountability can be paralyzing no matter which side you land on. “Why should I sacrifice when big companies are to blame for climate change,” you might ask? Or alternatively, “why should I trust someone as a serious climate candidate when they still drive around in cars, the #1 climate enemy?” If you’re considering either of those dilemmas, it means you’re thinking meaningfully about how to fight climate change — but at the same time, focusing too much on one side amounts to climate tunnel vision.
Jewel Lipps, an ecology Ph.D. student at Georgetown University and member of the nonprofit 500 Women Scientists, suggests that the focus on hypocrisy (and individual accountability) is an outgrowth of a “small government and personal freedoms” political philosophy, which she recognizes from her conservative Mexican-American upbringing in Texas. Her introduction to environmentalism as a high school student focused on “behavior change as opposed to, say, learning about city council.” She says that lens obscured the fact that she was “living in a system created by political decisions made before [she] was even born.”
But when you look closer, the line between individual actions and policy-level changes starts to blur. Hypocrisy is a moral flaw; it means you don’t live the values that you claim to define you. But while flawed choices are frequently due to personal failings, they can also be the product of terrible options.
In his upcoming book Morality and the Environmental Crisis, philosophy professor Roger Gottlieb writes: “Morally, we are caught in a system we did not design, faced with unpleasant choices we would rather skip over, torn between wanting a little more ease and a nagging conscience that suggests that such ease is not worth the moral cost, and sometimes compelled to choose what we would think is the least bad of two distressing alternatives.”
But even if your environmentally acceptable options are few, Gottlieb argues that doesn’t quite give you a free pass. If climate change is a driving value for you, an individual, shouldn’t you do everything that you personally can to limit your own carbon footprint? Shouldn’t you choose the emissions-reducing option, even if it’s unpleasant and inconvenient?
From a moral perspective: well, yeah. Gottlieb goes on to quote philosopher Marion Hourdequin: “A commitment to mitigating climate change should entail a commitment to being the kind of person who is thoughtful about her greenhouse gas emissions and makes an effort to reduce them.”
Popula Editor in chief Maria Bustillos wrote this weekend that “collective action doesn’t fall off a tree, it is made up of countless individual acts.” As for me, a person who has struggled with climate hypocrisy in my own life, I agree that any juxtaposition of individual versus collective action is false; it’s not an either-or decision. You don’t have to decide to start taking the bus to work or to vote for better transit funding; to fly less or to petition your representative about high-speed rail. But some of those lifestyle changes are, without question, more accessible to some than others.
The act of reducing one’s personal carbon footprint is complicated because it can be either a luxury or a sacrifice, depending on your personal circumstances or how you feel like framing it. A diet with less meat is usually cheaper, but at the same time, mindful, ecological eating is so Gwyneth. A bike or bus pass is cheaper than a car, but they’re often slower, and living in bike- and transit-friendly areas is more expensive than most suburbs. Long-distance travel is a particularly baffling example: A long-distance train trip is often more expensive than a flight and takes so much longer that you have to have the luxury of a flexible work schedule to be able to consider it.
You see how we could endlessly debate why it’s hard or unpleasant to minimize one’s personal carbon footprint! But the salient point here is that there IS always a reason that it’s at least a little bit hard or unpleasant. That’s never going to change unless the economic and political systems start to incentivize carbon-saving as opposed to -spewing.
So, at long last, back to your question, IMHAH: Should Ocasio-Cortez commit to reducing her personal carbon footprint in a public way?
Carbon-cutting lifestyle choices, as my Grist colleague Eric Holthaus posits, could become more popular if modeled by an influential person like her — and could make her audience aware of all the structural obstacles that make them so inconvenient or even inaccessible.
But in my opinion, Ocasio-Cortez shouldn’t have to ban herself from ride-sharing accounts or airports if it would meaningfully cut into her valuable time. Ocasio-Cortez is in the exceptional position of being able to influence American legislation — probably one of the most powerful positions on Earth, from a climate change perspective. The more time she’s able to devote to shifting American climate policy, the better.
So, if we’re talking about simply reducing carbon emissions — that’s the goal here, right? — the hours in her day matter more than mine and (no offense) probably yours! I wouldn’t see them spent on an Amtrak platform just to demonstrate how our rail system is inadequate.