The hypocrisy footprint

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Image: A sunset over probably Iowa, viewed from a carbon-emitting airplane

Last week, an offhand remark in a radio story really transformed my thinking about how we are all hypocrites.The story* was about MEC (the Canadian analog of REI), and a petition by their members to drop a supplier that sells guns to other people. The expert was explaining that companies can never fully act consistently with espoused values, but they can reduce the most hypocritical actions.

So, just like we have a carbon footprint, we all have what he called an “hypocrisy footprint.”

Living on this planet involves some kind of footprint, whether we like it or not. We can try to minimize a hypocrisy footprint, but it’ll always be there. If you’re pro-union, do you ever purchase anything from a non-union shop? And then if you look at the goods sold in that union shop, are they selling things made in non-union shops? If you’re vegetarian (as I am), do you ever buy a baked good that has refined sugar? Because animal bones are probably involved. When supply chains and societal interactions have so many complex connections, we’ll end up doing things that contradict our values. In some cases, we won’t even be aware of this fact when we’re doing it.

We can’t reasonably cease all activities that result in carbon emissions, and we can’t reasonably avoid activities that, in one way or another, support things that are inconsistent with our values.

For example, I’ve long thought that Wal-Mart is the most hideous when it comes to labor exploitation, and I’ve only bought something at Wal-Mart, on one occasion, when absolutely necessary. But then again, I’ve typically lived in places where there are good alternatives. But it’s not like most of the clothes that I wear (for example) meet basic ethical standards. And I’m sure if you go through my kitchen, you might find a product that has palm oil in it. I also have been a regular Amazon customer for years, even though it’s pretty clear that Amazon could be just as bad as Wal-Mart, it not worse. But Amazon has just made my hypocrisy footprint too large, so I just dropped them. I’m not going to pretend, however, that my Amazon alternatives are hypocrisy-free. Maybe I’ll buy something from them once in a while, when the alternatives are particularly negative. But hopefully the footprint is smaller.

I think the heuristic of the hypocrisy footprint can help us generate more realistic expectations when trying to convince others to make changes. The argument, “You believe this, so you should do that,” can be logically airtight, but that doesn’t mean that we can expect a rational change. Because so many things are interconnected.

For example, if a person claims to support the recruitment and inclusion of graduate students from underrepresented groups in their program, then I think the evidence clearly would require them to disregard the GRE and drop it as a requirement. But, this isn’t necessarily as straightforward as it sounds, because this takes time and effort to make this change at an institutional level. It’s not a professor can snap their fingers and turn off the GRE requirement in their department. It means spending political capital, which means having capital for other things that might be just as pressing. If someone is working in a department that hasn’t dropped the GRE, does that mean that they don’t care about equity and inclusion? No, of course not. But are they aware that this is part of their hypocrisy footprint?

If we spent all of our time fighting the fights that need to be fought, then we wouldn’t have time for anything else. If all of our decisions were designed to 100% minimize all conflicts with our own values, then we’d be paralyzed.

For any issue, there are lots of folks who are on your side who are doing things that set back the cause, or not doing things that should advance the cause. Instead of convincing them them you’re right, maybe it is a better strategy to make sure that they have the bandwidth to deal with the issue, and deal with them so that they realize their actions are increasing their hypocrisy footprint? When communicating with people about climate science, an effective approach is to discuss climate change in terms of the priorities and values of your audience.

I’m not saying this gives any of us a license for hypocrisy. In many aspects of our lives, being a good person doesn’t involve tradeoffs, it just involves caring about other people. Nonetheless, when we’re expecting time, money, and effort to be aligned with values, then tradeoffs must happen, because those resources are finite.

For example, I think it’s very important to be overt about supporting undocumented students on my campus. I’ve discussed this on twitter, and in my department we talk about the concerns of these students. Some of my advisees are undocumented, and they shouldn’t have to teach me about how to best support them. Nonetheless, I think in the past year we’ve had three different occasions where there have been trainings for faculty and staff from our Dreamers Success Center on campus. And I’ve missed every one of them. I simply didn’t make the time in my schedule, because other things were in the way. That, I feel, is part of my hypocrisy footprint, because if I’m going to be supportive, then I need to be trained to do this the right way. But also, when I didn’t attend these trainings, I was doing other things that are also consistent with my values. Even though I’ve skipped on the trainings, that doesn’t give me license to be ignorant of these issues, or to fail to respond appropriately when interacting with students.

Are there ways where you feel constrained so that your actions can’t adequately match up with your values? How do you go about understanding and minimizing your hypocrisy footprint?


*I spent a good 20 minutes trying to find a link to that story, but, alas, I didn’t find it. I could have sworn it was on PRI’s The World, but maybe not? I think it’s important to link to sources that I discuss, but here I am not, because it’s hard to find it. (Thus increasing my hypocrisy footprint, because hanging out with my kid tonight is more important than finding that source.)

5 thoughts on “The hypocrisy footprint

    • Thanks Gary! (This story looks like it came out a day after the one I heard on the radio — MEC hadn’t decided to pull stop selling Vista products yet. Also, this story doesn’t mention the “hypocrisy footprint” as far as I can tell.)

  1. Hi Terry, in the interest in helping others make their footprint smaller, do you have suggestions for Amazon alternatives? I’m thinking for online purchasing of books, mostly, but also random stuff.

    • Anna, I don’t have any great solutions/alternatives to Amazon. For books, in my town we have a remarkable independent bookstore (Vroman’s), and they’ll order whatever I want. And do free shipping anywhere in the US, if the order is >50 bucks. The hard part is the stray thing that’s hard to find, or more annoying to get, like a filter for the water thing in our fridge, or the right salt for our dishwasher, or a USB cable that isn’t overpriced. We’ll see how that goes, I’ve only just dropped Amazon.

  2. Hi, just wanted to say: I work in biodiversity research, and currently in the science-policy field, and a big issue are always ecosystem services and values and how to value whatever the ecosystem does (for us) and why we should hence protect it. There is always a lot of talk about the intrinisc value of diversity and species, but that never really adds up to being enough for people to do something protection-wise or not do something impact-wise. So the best addition to the discussion I ever heard so far was from a student who said that at some point we will have to consider if our actions match our values, and if not, to either change our actions, or admit that our values are not the once we claim.

    tl;dr: Ecosystem valuation is currently hypocrisy big time, I’m afraid.

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