Joel Pringle on ‘environmental privilege’

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.

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11 years ago

Fine, spend $3-5bn in compensation and incentives for International Power/GDF Suez to convert Hazelwood into a nuclear plant.

Literally there has never been an opportunity like this to lower Australian and global emissions. Hazelwood is apocryphally the dirtiest power station in the Southern Hemisphere, but is far too large to dispense with (3.2GW?). It’s owner, International Power, is in the process of merging its international energy assets with GDF Suez – a company with nearly 50 years of nuclear energy experience and close links to France’s Areva.

The merged entity will be the only major Australian utilities player with any real nuclear experience as well as the owner of our biggest energy albatross…it’s carbon reduction serendepity!

David Walker
David Walker(@d-w-griffiths)
11 years ago

This is kinda obvee-erse but I’ll say it anyway: the problem of high-cost, low impact carbon abatement is precisely the problem that an emissions trading scheme exists to solve. The political problem is that for all but the very rational voter, the psychic benefits of high-cost solutions like solar are higher than the benefits of some pricing scheme they don’t fully understand.

The clearest recent example of this dilemma came last year when the Australia Institute pointed out that an emissions trading scheme would mean that people who willingly cut their own emissions would actually lower the cost of emissions trading permits for everyone else. There was a rational answer to this (to do with regulatory resets) but poor Penny Wong had Buckley’s chance of getting anyone to understand it. And besides, in the short term the critics were right. An emissions trading scheme may get the job done far better than anything else, but it offers poor psychic rewards.

Such arguments helped to sink the ETS and probably to ensure we don’t get a system-wide attack on Australian emissions until the next decade.

Most environmentally conscious voters put a high value on direct, tangible action and a low value on system-wide changes based on incentives and equilibria. Nice irony here, since the environment, like the economy, is a system based on incentives and equilibria.

We shouldn’t be completely pessimistic. 20 years ago a large part of the organised environmental movement didn’t want higher prices for carbon-based fuels. The movement is learning slowly, but it is learning.

At some stage this will probably play our via a schism in the Green movement between those who are willing to support an ETS-style proposal that might actually get passed, and those who refuse to do so.

11 years ago

Nice work Joel. Too many progressives have lauded the solar bonus scheme as an environmental policy of policies. I don’t seem to be able to help but run into left-leaning folk who bash the NSW Government for reducing the feed-in tariff because ‘solar panels are the way to go’. Well okay, so long as you couldn’t give a sh*t about low-income earners and tenants who are co-footing the bill but not able to buy into the scheme. Sure, roll your eyes at the NSW Government for back flipping on part of the policy if you must, given that some people made an investment based on a policy setting that has since been amended, but also acknowledge that they got it wrong in the first place. Promoting policies necessary to avert environmental disaster (I’m not thinking solar bonus now) is grand. Neglecting to consider the financial impact of said policies on those least able to afford it, is not. And claiming it’s particularly in the interests of already vulnerable communities to go after an environmental goal because they’ll be most affected by climate change, whilst true, is not an answer to this challenge. Amend the settings. Work to ensure the policies don’t disadvantage those least able to contend with economic and social pressures.

derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago

Nothing for me to argue with in any of the above. But it really is amazing how hard it is to make earnest middle class greenies understand just what dreadful policy these subsidies are; people have an amazing ability to refuse to think things through if it looks like the conclusion will be uncomfortable for them.

11 years ago

Thanks Don.

I agree that it’s the provider of the electoral bribe that is at fault here. The Government had all the information in front of them when they decided to implement the Solar Bonus Scheme.

It’s another take on green-washing.

– joel.

11 years ago

It’s not quite as simple as that really. I’m left (supposedly), I’m green, I’m a ‘privileged’ decent income earner, over-educated, inner city and with a keen interest in reducing both my and Australia’s total emissions.

I went for the federal solar PV subsidy not because I thought it was noble and virtuous but because I thought that if they’re going to subsidise rich people for something ineffective with mostly private gain, I’d better get in line! At the very same time as getting the subsidised scheme, I was writing to the Minister and to the local paper saying it was an absurd waste of money, as well as considering other ways to reduce energy usage further (there are no low hanging fruit left in my house).

So this isn’t just me saying how clever I am, it’s me saying that the post is a little bit bullshit, people will respond to incentives with and/or without guilt. I feel no guilt about abusing a system set up to be abused, and I do feel guilt about my remaining brown coal usage, but having the PV system doesn’t play a part in that.

Don Arthur has a point too.

(we all know the solution is nuclear anyway).

10 years ago

[…] November was the clear winner. For this I largely have Don Arthur from Club Troppo to thank, for this post linking back to Translations. Thanks for reading […]