The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label virtue. Show all posts
Showing posts with label virtue. Show all posts

Monday, August 8, 2022

Which is the most dangerous animal in the world? A story on how to mismanage the environment

The story of how a hummingbird tried to put out a giant forest fire is not common in the English-speaking world, but it is well known in France and Italy. If you can understand French, do watch this clip that tells not only the story of the virtuous hummingbird, but how badly it ends. The moral of the story is "do not reason with a hummingbird brain." (the hummingbird story is discussed more in detail in my book "Before the Collapse" (2019),

Sometimes, when I give a public talk, I try to stimulate the audience by asking them questions. One is, "which animal do you think is the most dangerous in the world?" Typically, the answer may be lions, snakes, hornets, or the like. But I tell them that the answer is the hummingbird, and then I tell them a story. 

It goes like this: there is a gigantic fire raging in the forest. All the animals run away for their lives, except for a hummingbird that heads towards the flames with some water in its beak. The lion sees the hummingbird flying by and asks, "Little bird, what do you think you are doing with that drop of water against that huge fire?" And the hummingbird replies, "I am doing my part".

Some people seem to think that there is wisdom in the story of the hummingbird. Personally, though, I think it is more akin to the stuff that comes out of the back end of the male of the bovine species. More than admirable, the hummingbird seems to me a very dangerous animal. 

If you studied philosophy in high school, you may remember enough to categorize the hummingbird as a follower of Immanuel Kant and of his categorical imperative principle. But, apart from Kant's philosophy, the story is often interpreted in terms of environmental virtues. That is, everyone should engage individually in good practices for the sake of the environment. Even small efforts, it is said, help and should be appreciated. Things like turning off the light before leaving the house, turning off the tap while brushing one's teeth, taking short showers to save water, riding a bicycle instead of a car, carefully separating waste, and all the other virtuous actions that make a good environmentalist. These actions are just as useless as the drop of water that the hummingbird carries in its beak against the fire. But if everyone does their part, we will achieve something. But are we sure?

Let me tell you another story. Some time ago, I found myself immersed in a cloud of smoke while walking along the street, not far from my home. Not pleasant nor healthy, of course. Someone had thought that it was a good moment to burn a pile of clippings from their garden, generating the bad-smelling cloud, apparently without worrying too much about the people walking in the street or their neighbors.

Is it legal to burn stuff and smoke one's neighbors in the middle of an urban area? Back home, I searched the Web and I found that, in Italy, you can do that, but only in small quantities and according to rather strict rules. The law seemed to me way too permissive but, at least, there was a law. Having ascertained the matter, it seemed to me appropriate to write a small post for a local discussion group, inviting people to be a little more careful with burning leaves in their gardens.

My gosh! What had I done! In return, I received insults of all kinds, even threats of a lawsuit. Of course, it is normal to be insulted for just about anything you say on social media. But the curious thing was that the insults all arrived in the name of good ecological practice. Burning the cuttings, I was told, is a natural thing, the smell they make is good, the old farmers did it and so those people who were doing that are true ecologists, whereas I had no title to bother anyone with my "legalistic" considerations. Someone even wrote to me, "If you say this, you must be a very unhappy person!" 

The people who took this position seemed to believe that their commitment to good environmental practices, caring for their gardens or whatever, put them in a position of moral superiority over those unfortunates who do not do the same. Consequently, they felt that they could afford to ignore certain laws, for example, those that forbid them to smoke out their neighbors.

We could call this attitude the " hummingbird syndrome." The fact of being virtuous in certain things gives you the right to be a sinner in another. (I think it is also a problem of Kant's categorical imperative, but I am not a philosopher so I stick to hummingbirds). In short, many people think they can behave like the hummingbird of the story, clearing their conscience by dropping a little water over a giant forest fire. And having done that, they can happily continue burning the forest, polluting in other ways.

Once I got into this order of ideas, I found that I am not the first to think about these things. Among others, Jean Baptiste Comby did in his book " La question climatique. Genèse et dépolitisation d'un problème public"(Raisons d'agir, 2015). He does not use the term "hummingbird syndrome," but he basically agrees with what I am saying. The idea is that the climate issue, and in general the ecological issue, has been" depoliticized ", that is, transferred entirely to the private domain of good individual practices. 

What happens, according to Comby, is that the members of the middle class build for themselves an image of personal innocence by taking care of some detail when, on the other hand, they are the ones who do the most damage to the ecosystem. A petty bourgeois morality that Cyprien Tasset rightly calls " green phariseeism ." 

Here is an excerpt from Tasset's review of the book by Comby

The fifth chapter deals with the "social paradox according to which the prescriptions of eco-citizenship symbolically benefit those who are, in practice, the least respectful of the atmosphere and ecosystems" (p. 16). Indeed, existing data on the social distribution of greenhouse gas emissions show that "the more material resources increase, the greater the propensity to deteriorate the planet" (p. 185). The cultural capital, here is inclined to "show itself to be benevolent towards ecology" and allows for symbolic profits, usually going hand in hand with economic capital, is "without real effect" positive in terms of limiting emissions (p. 186). Jean-Baptiste Comby has the merit of posing this paradox without resorting, as other sociologists sometimes allow themselves to do, to the ideologically overloaded category of "bobos" (fake ecologists) (*).

In short, in my humble opinion the hummingbird of the story is a son of a bitch: flies over the forest, throws his droplet of water, then leaves, happy to have done its duty. And all the animals that can't fly die roasted.

And that could happen to us too if we continue like this.

(h / t Nicolas Casaux)

(*) In French, the term " bobos " indicates the "Bourgeois-Bohemes" - members of the upper middle class who like to paint themselves as caring for the environment but who pollute and consume resources much more than the average citizen.