Let's say I ride my green ten-speed bicycle to work tomorrow morning rather than drive my third generation Toyota Prius. Does that give me the right to steal your liverwurst sandwich from the office fridge?
Well, that depends on whether I stop by the farmer's market on the way home.
(Stay with me. This will all hopefully make sense in a few paragraphs.)
You see, stealing liverwurst sandwiches is just one example of how ordinary rules don't apply to green consumers. For years we have been reading stories about "Gulfstream Liberals" who leave muddy carbon footprints the size of a small African nation all over our global living room floor. Who can forget the 2007 report that Al Gore's vast Nashville plantation consumed 20 times the energy of the average home, or the stories about eco-activist Laurie David's jaunts in her private jet between her east and west coast mansions, (not to mention her citation by the Chilmark Conservation Commission for paving over protected wetlands on her Martha's Vineyard estate)?
It turns out these are not organic cherry-picked examples of eco-hypocrisy. This is Green standard operating procedure, according to a piece titled, "Do Green Products Make Us Better People?" in my new issue of Psychological Science. University of Toronto researchers Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong found that while Greens may sport a "halo of green consumerism," it is only to conceal their horns of self-interest.
The researchers asked about 150 subjects to play computer games in which they could increase their money by cheating and lying about it. Mazar and Zhong found that the greener shoppers were more likely to cheat, lie, and steal than conventional consumers. Later, subjects were told to take their spoils from an envelope based on the honor system. Again, Greens were six times as likely to take more than they earned. Finally, subjects played a game where they were asked to share money with another player. You guessed it: Green shoppers shared fewer dollars than conventional shoppers.
THEOLOGIANS AND PHILOSOPHERS have been aware of this phenomenon for millennia, sometimes calling it the "licensing effect," other times "moral balancing" or "compensatory ethics." Whatever you call it, it means the same thing: Greens believe they have built up so much ethical capital with their environmental good deeds that they have earned the right to behave like strip miners on a bender.
This research reinforced the findings of a 2008 study that showed environmentalists were more likely than others to take cross-country or international flights -- flights that consume the energy egquivalent of an entire Polynesian country or one of Laurie David's homes. A similar study from Stanford University showed white Americans who voted for President Obama were more willing than those who didn't to express racist opinions. The justification was the same. I voted for Obama, therefore I am morally superior to you, therefore I have so many ethical credits in the bank I can afford to be a little racist.
Don't expect environmental activists to see the slightest contradiction in their words and deeds. When Laurie David was confronted with these obvious examples of hypocrisy, she simply replied that "no one is perfect." What a great answer. Why didn't that guy piloting the Exxon Valdez think of that? The media would have just shrugged and said, "Hey, Captain Joe's right! No one is perfect. Let's go, boys, there's no story here…"
I know. Often, after one of my frequent rants, my girlfriend will ask me: Well, what do we do with this? I seldom have an answer for her. After all, I'm a kvetcher, not a problem-solver. Besides, I like to think that most of the big problems have no solution. If they had, someone much smarter than me would have come up with a solution by now.
But if I don't have an answer, at least I get to feel that slight sense of moral superiority usually reserved for Greens. If nothing else, whenever I see one of those smug Green scolds shouldering her authentic Anya Hindmarch "I'm Not a Plastic Bag" tote ($200 retail), I can feel a little smug too.
And next time I find my liverwurst sandwich missing from the office fridge, instead of going cubicle to cubicle asking to smell everyone's breath, I'll just track down the owner of the first generation Toyota Prius in the parking lot, the one with the "Support Urban Agriculture" bumpersticker.
It's a dead giveway.