How do people respond to evidence of their own privilege? Some will deny it. They’ll try to tell you that earning $90,000+ per year makes them a middle income earner. Others will ignore it. And others still will try to justify it — they’ll say they deserve to be better off than others, or that a system that creates income and wealth differences ultimately benefits everyone.
But some people will confront their privilege head on. And when they do, they may decide that they don’t deserve it and that their advantages don’t always benefit people who are less well off than they are. One response to this is to feel guilty. Guilt is an extremely unpleasant emotion. And the risk is that we’ll take shortcuts to make it go away.
Many people believe that our current patterns of energy consumption are unsustainable. The carbon emissions we generate when drive our cars, cool our houses and fly between cities are contributing to potentially catastrophic climate change — change that will affect less privileged people far more than it will affect us. In the future, people will look back at how we lived, and they will condemn us for it.
The risk is that governments will create policies that help privileged people to feel less guilty but that don’t actually reduce carbon emissions. In a couple of recent posts at Translations, Joel Pringle argues that the NSW Solar Bonus Scheme was exactly that kind of policy. In his most recent post on the issue he writes:
The politics of the issue are quite simple: people like to feel as if they are contributing to carbon emission reductions, and measure their success in ways that are easy to see and simple to understand (put solar panel on roof, reduce reliance on evil coal-fired power stations, be a good person). And Governments love giving voters money for things that are popular among voters, even if the popularity is misguided.
The problem, says Joel, is that the individual emissions reductions do not necessarily translate into overall reductions, and that money spend on installing solar panels could be more effectively be spend in other ways.
Joel argues that policies that involve subsidies to home owners who install and use solar panels represent a kind of ‘environmental privilege’. The major benefit is not an overall reduction in emissions, but an opportunity to deal with individual feelings of guilt. The climate may still change catastrophically, but the panel owners will rest easy knowing that they are not to blame. Joel writes:
When I use the term ‘environmental privilege’, I refer to the policies and subsidies that benefit an individual’s carbon reductions without contributing to overall reductions. I use the word privilege because it is inevitably those with more power and influence who can influence government to implement these policies, and often they include middle-class welfare through subsidies, or even direct wealth transfers from poor to rich, as is the case in the NSW Solar Bonus Scheme.
Essentially we risk creating yet another put down on disadvantaged people, a shaming mechanism that says that poor people are dirty and bad for the environment.
If you believe that carbon emissions must be reduced and you also believe in social justice, then it is important to watch for instances of environmental privilege, and call them out for what they are.
Unlike many conservative and classical liberal critics of environmental schemes, Joel isn’t denying that climate change is a problem or arguing that there’s nothing we should do about it. His complaint is that we’re doing the wrong things — things that won’t reduce emissions and that risk further disadvantaging those on low incomes.