The Return of the Monkish Virtues


“[The author of Leviticus] posits the existence of one supreme God who contends neither with a higher realm nor with competing peers. The world of demons is abolished; there is no struggle with autonomous foes, because there are none. With the demise of the demons, only one creature remains with ‘demonic’ power – the human being. Endowed with free will, human power is greater than any attributed to humans by pagan society. Not only can one defy God but, in Priestly language, one can drive God out of his sanctuary. In this respect, humans have replaced demons…..[The author of Leviticus] also posits that the pollution of the sanctuary leads to YHWH’s abandonment of Israel and its ejection from the land….Israel pollutes the land; the land becomes infertile; Israel is forced to leave.” – Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus

“Pollution ideas are the product of an ongoing political debate about the ideal society. All mysterious pollutions are dangerous, but to focus on the physical danger and to deride the reasoning that attaches it to particular transgressions is to miss the lesson for ourselves…. Pollution beliefs trace causal chains from from actions to disasters…Pollution beliefs uphold conceptual categories dividing the moral from the immoral and so sustain the vision of the good society.” – Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and Culture

“Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper. We justly, therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices.” – David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals

The era of the 100 watt incandescent light bulb came to an end in America on January 1st. Lower wattages will soon join them in a phaseout over time. As I noted previously, this will mean factory shutdowns in the United States and the migration of the light bulb manufacturing industry to China. The most common replacement type bulbs, compact fluorescents, are not “instant on,” generally fail to provide a proper light spectrum, contain poisonous mercury, and burn out sooner than advertised. CFL boosters claim none of these are real problems and that CFLs are a slam dunk for benefit/cost reasons, but the cold reality is that despite significant promotion, they never received widespread consumer adoption voluntarily. Given how eagerly consumers slurp up even bona fide more expensive products like Apple computers when they are perceived to be superior, I’m inclined to think the consumers are on to something. I’ve tried out CFLs myself and thought they basically sucked.

The supposed rationale for imposing an inferior product that did not receive the desired traction in the the marketplace is to prevent climate change. I went searching to try to find exactly what the impact of light bulbs on greenhouse gas emissions was and have found it quite difficult to obtain. The various sites touting CFLs all note the high output of CO2 from electricity generation generally, how much CO2 changing this or that bulb will save, etc, but as for what a wholesale elimination of light bulbs would achieve, that’s harder to find.

According to the EPA, residential electricity accounted for 784.6 million metric tons of CO2 in 2009, or 11.8% of total US human greenhouse gas emissions. How much of that is from light bulbs? It’s not broken out in the EPA’s report (even the detailed version), but I’ll attempt an estimate of aggregate CO2 savings. (If someone has a direct link to this information, please let me know).

The Guardian reported that an Australian incandescent ban would save that country 800K tons of CO2 emitted per year and a UK ban would save 2-3 million tons. It also reported that China could save 48 million tons per year by banning incandescents.

The US is bigger than Australia and the UK, but similarly advanced developmentally. China is a bigger emitter than the US, has far more people, is less advanced developmentally, and is a bigger user of coal for electricity generation. However, all three countries project similar per capita emissions reductions from incandescent elimination. If the US savings were at the upper end of their range, it would have CO2 savings of around 15 million tons a year. That’s only 0.2% of total US greenhouse gas emissions. Even if the US saved the same 48 million tons as China, it’s only 0.7%. I’d be skeptical of anyone claiming the US would save a lot more CO2 per capita than these. Some maybe, a lot, no.

In short, swapping out incandescent light bulbs is not going to be a major contributor to solving the problem of climate change. I’m not aware of anyone claiming it is. So why pass a law that is unpopular in many quarters and cram CFLs and other type of bulbs consumers haven’t chosen to buy on their own down their throats? It seems to be a purely provocative move of a mostly symbolic nature with little real substance that is sure to only harden opposition to the real changes we need to make to actually make material reductions in GHG emissions. (One might say the same of other items like mandatory recycling or banning plastic grocery bags).

The answer is that the symbolism is the substance.

The sad reality is that rather than make policy cases based on benefit/cost or other technical considerations, for political or personal reasons sustainability advocates have decided to model their cause on the template of religion. In it we have an Edenic state of nature in a fallen state because of man’s sin (pollution) for which we will experience a coming apocalyptic judgement (damage from climate change). Thus avoiding the consequences becomes fundamentally a problem of sin management. The proposed sin management solution is again taken from traditional Christianity: confession and repentance, followed by penance, restoration to right standing with God (nature), and committing to a holier life.

There are two basic problems with this. The first is that while the religion template taps in to a deep psychological vein in the human spirit – some have suggested humanity may even carry a so-called “God gene” – most people already have a religion and aren’t likely to convert to a new one without a major outreach effort.

But more importantly, the notion of penance, and perhaps of asceticism more generally, has never sold with the public, even in more religious eras. David Hume (a vigorous religious skeptic it should be noted) referred to the values resulting from this lifestyle as the “monkish virtues” and noted that they have “everywhere rejected by men of sense.” Or as Carol Coletta put it more recently, people don’t want to be told to “eat their spinach.”

It strikes me that while perhaps environmentalists don’t really want to force a particular lifestyle on people, there is a fundamental desire to see people engage in some sort of public penance for our environmental sins. I believe this to be the root logic underlying a lot of feel-good (or perhaps more accurately, “feel-bad”) initiatives like getting rid of incandescent light bulbs. It is a form of penance and embrace of the monkish virtues.

I can’t help but notice that even Christianity itself has moved away from promoting the monkish virtues. While things humility are of course still preached and expected to be modeled, modern Christianity mostly rejects the notion of an ascetic life. Most Evangelical churches actually preach that God wants humans to be happy. The idea is of a God who wants us to be unselfish, but not unhappy. A not insignificant number of churches actually preach the so-called “prosperity gospel” in which God will provide earthly blessings to His followers. In the Catholic tradition, monasticism itself has been in decline for some time. (I liken the reports of upticks in interest in joining monasteries as similar to the perennial “return of the suit” articles in fashion magazines).

Whether these theological points are accurate or not is beside the point of this article. They appear to be attractional. For example, well-known prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen runs the largest church in the United States, with over 40,000 attending weekly.

What might the environmental movement have looked like based on a different template? I’ll refer again to the work of Bruce Mau. If you’ve ever seen him present on this topic, he likes to start by noting that if we brought the entire world up to US standards of living, it would take four Earth’s worth of resources given our current technologies and approaches to make it happen. He thinks that’s a good thing, because the patent impossibility of that “takes that option off the table.” He then goes on to talk about all the super-cool new stuff we are going to have to invent and scale up to address the challenges of the future. If you haven’t, I might suggest getting his book Massive Change, which I reviewed a while back. It’s difficult to come away from one of Mau’s books or lectures without being excited about the possibilities of the future.

I don’t think Mau has any different view of the fundamentals of climate change than your typical orthodox environmentalist. But his approaches to solutions (which are admittedly not always short term practical action plans) and the sales job on them is very different. As a designer, he knows he needs to create something that’s aspirational and attractional in order to get people to want it. It’s a shame too few people have followed that lead.

The monkish virtues are just never going to sell. Perhaps you can get a room full of the sustainability in-crowd to buy into it, or even focus on top level political success as with the bulb ban. But ultimately I think this is self-defeating.

In the short term I’d suggest ending any efforts to impose direct consumer mandates. I don’t think that’s where the money is, so to speak, in GHG reductions. Instead, let’s focus on the producer side of the equation in ways that are largely transparent to consumers and don’t involve significant costs. More fuel efficient vehicles might be one. Replacing coal with natural gas is another possibility. (The EPA report I linked earlier cited this as a big contributor the decline in GHG emissions in recent years). New technologies are clearly needed and should perhaps be invested in even though as we know this will lead to many failures along the way.

As the financial crisis in Greece and elsewhere shows, people rarely confront structural problems, no matter how serious, until the crisis actually comes. At least if “austerity” (a monkish virtue if ever there was one) is the major part of the proposed solution.

If an environmental equivalent of austerity is required to save the planet, then I’m afraid we should prepare for the deluge. I personally don’t think we’re at that point, given that we’ve had huge gains in energy efficiency for many decades now while our lifestyles have actually improved. More of that, not the promotion of monkish solutions like CFL lightbulbs, is what it will really take to drive further environmental improvements.

PS: If you don’t think people are really promoting or embracing monkish lifestyles in support of environmentalism, read this article from the Guardian about people giving up on daily showers. Or think about the people trying to completely go “off the grid.” Even if CFLs don’t fit for you, clearly there are plenty of examples. I pick CFLs because they are an institutionalization of monkish virtues, not just the passion of the small minority, which has always been the case.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs based in the Midwest. His writings appear at The Urbanophile, where this essay originally appeared.

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