Stentor summarizes three rebuttals of the conservative argument that Gore is a hypocrite for preaching reducing emissions while having a huge electric bill. Two he agrees with; one he doesn’t, but makes an argument against it that I think shows, in a strictly Machiavellian way, why Gore is not a hypocrite. Says Stentor,
3) Gore does so much good work on this issue that he deserves to be allowed to be a little wasteful in his personal habits.
The problem is, argument 3 is not a valid one. It essentially says that the more you talk the talk, the less you need to walk the walk. Can you imagine anyone saying “you know, Mark Foley did so much good chairing the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children that he deserves to hit on a few pages. He earned it!” Of course not.
Actually, comparing environmentalism to not abusing teenagers is exactly why arguments from hypocrisy fall short here. Sexual abuse is an individual problem: the abuser hurts the abused individually. In contrast, environmental degradation is a collective problem, a tragedy of the commons: reckless energy consumers collective put a strain on natural resources and pump CO2 into the air.
It, of course, gets subtler than that. There are sexual abuse issues that are collective, especially if you believe that media images promote violence (and I don’t). And there are environmental issues caused by individual action; for example, a factory that dumps arsenic in a river is harming people’s health without regard for what other polluters do. Yet other issues straddle the line by being based on a tragedy of the commons among only a few actors.
However, energy use is very clearly a collective rather than an individual problem, so it makes no sense to talk about Gore’s immoral use of energy. Unlike in the case raping a single person to prevent ten from being raped, there is no real moral dilemma around issues that never affect people except collectively. If Gore causes less carbon to be emitted than he emits himself by a combination of carbon credits and activism, which we can assume he does, he’s a net energy saver.
There is possibly a meta issue around Gore’s energy use – namely, the fact that symbolically, if he uses less energy then people will take him more seriously. However, this is never the argument that’s peddled against him. Blogs like Common Sense Political Thought instead laugh at how Gore leaves the peons to conserve and pays his way out of his dues. But is conservation a moral tax to pay or a way of helping people? A rich person who contributes $30 billion to the eradication of AIDS is after all not told that he must fly to Africa and prescribe anti-retrovirals in remote villages to be credible.
And even if they did, it would in itself promote more carbon emissions. It’s acceptable for an impartial analyst to note that Gore’s energy use is causing people to take him less seriously. It’s not acceptable for a conservative activist to tell people not to take Gore seriously because he makes himself vulnerable to not being taken seriously. That kind of concern trolling should be reserved for party politics rather than for real issues, such as conserving energy.