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The hypocrisy of ‘greenies’ — a fair charge?

Here’s the question: can we rightfully critique oil companies for their environmental impacts while we continue to fill up on their oil? Does our reliance on their products mean that we have no space to critique the manner in which that production occurs? It’s the type of question I often come up against when writing and reading about corporations. It’s also something that comes up frequently in the comments on posts across Thought Leader and elsewhere. A similar question could be asked of those who protest about the poor labour conditions of those working in the textile industry. I think what makes this type of question so potent is the fact that underlying it is an implicit accusation of hypocrisy that goes something like: how can you whinge about the pollution and devastation when you benefit so handsomely from the production of oil?

It’s a tough nut to crack, and what makes the oil example so unique is the fact that we can’t easily escape our dependence on oil (nor the persistent cries of hypocrisy). Sure we can cut down on how much we drive around, make sure to use car pools, and even decide to drive a hybrid. But even if we each did all three of these, the truth is that our entire way of life is thoroughly dependent on a constant supply of oil: the electricity we use, clothes we wear, food we eat, medicines we rely on, and the way we transport ourselves, our entire social and economic infrastructure is bathed in oil. At present there is just no escaping our use of oil. So does that mean we have no right to criticise the way in which oil is produced?

John Vlismas’ recent post touches on this topic. At one point he creates the image of someone who self-righteously drives past BP in protest over their oil spill, only to fill up at the Shell around the corner. The point is the hypocrisy of such protest: both Shell and BP have equally horrible records when it comes to the resourcing and production of their oil. So protesting against one while continuing to fill up at the other is senseless. And I agree, to a point.

Again I think it comes down to the degree to which we are embedded in a society that functions on oil. As such we have very little choice about, or control over whether or not to use oil and its derivatives. Being a hypocrite means that you practice the very thing you are critical of. So for example, it’s hypocritical to speak out against Nike, only to wear Nike products the next day. What makes this hypocritical is the inconsistency of wearing Nike products where other options are freely available: you could wear fairly traded clothing, or even make your own. But this is not the case with oil. Unlike in the Nike example, there are effectively no other options to oil at this point, and so much of its usage is beyond our control. Even if you stopped driving completely and never flew again, you’d still be heavily reliant on oil — and it’s that lack of choice that I think makes some difference here. It’s the fact that so much of our reliance on oil is beyond our control, and that short of completely removing oneself from society, we have little option but to use oil at this stage.

Obviously berating oil companies from your Hummer on the way to the airport is hypocritical on all accounts. On that level one definitely has a choice about the extent to which you use oil, and one should be held responsible accordingly. That said, I think there is still some room to critique oil companies while continuing to use their products provided:

  • You use alternatives where possible, and
  • You make a concerted effort to reduce your reliance on fossil fuels.

For as long as we have little choice in whether we use oil or not, I don’t see protests against oil companies as automatically hypocritical. In fact I would argue that one of the things we need to be most vocal about is the fact that we don’t have any other choices here. I am not saying that in every case protesters are beyond reproach for not practising what they preach. Far from it. In most cases environmentalists must follow their imperatives absolutely; hypocrisy is the surest way to undermine a movement. What I am saying is that in this instance specifically, the pervasive and extensive use of oil is such that environmentalists don’t have direct control over whether they rely on oil or not, and as such they are not hypocrites when denouncing oil companies.