Compensating your sustainability efforts: Moral self-licensing

A flight with an airplane costs a ton of CO2, but a small sin is not a bad thing, right? All year long you haven’t eaten that much meat, you have replaced all light bulbs with led and you’ve just bought a new washing machine that doesn’t use as much electricity. Furthermore, you cannot afford a car in the city and recycle your household waste most of the time.

So a flight to Bali is not a bad thing at all, right? You have been looking forward to this for months. You’re going to spend 2 months on Bali and will work remotely while enjoying a rich life for a penny.

Does this sound familiar?

We live in a reckless world. We do not want to be confronted with the consequences of our behaviour. We want to buy nice clothes for a low price. Of course we say we want equal pay for the workers in India that produce the clothing, as long as we are not confronted with the actual working environment in which our clothing is produced.

Of course we include sustainable measurements in our daily routine, like recycling. This is one of our arguments to explain why we still want to take that flight to the other end of the world to ‘mentally renew ourselves’.

Unfortunately, this is not how sustainability works.

The same line of argumentation is: After a hard and long workout session, you go to MacDonald’s and have a big mac menu.

And after a long workday at home, you decide to treat yourself with a nice glass of wine, although you’ve decided last Sunday not to drink alcohol for a week. You think you’ve deserved the glass of wine and the big mac menu. However, the argumentation is not right at all, but you don’t like to think too much about that.

That flight to Bali totally ruins your good behaviour and the positive effects that your personal efforts have on a more sustainable climate. Can’t you ‘mentally renew yourself’ a bit closer to your house? It’s probably easier, cheaper and just as lovely.

Does this sound familiar? There are many examples like these.

Moral self-licensing

An interesting one is an example of two American apartment buildings. These are two identical buildings next to each other. Scientists did a research under its residents. They performed a campaign to save water in one building, but did not in the other building. The results: In the first building the residents used less water and in the second building the water consumption stayed the same. That sounds logical so far.

But at the same time it appeared that the energy consumption rose in the building of which residents tried to decrease their water consumption. In the second building the energy consumption stayed the same.

The scientific term for this effect is moral self-licensing. Apparently people compensate well behaviour with bad behaviour. Because of this effect, it is difficult to achieve the climate goals of the Paris agreement.

I must say: this sounds a bit lunatic to me. Human beings have a crazy way of thinking. We as human beings absolutely do not want to accept the consequences of our actions. We want to live our lives and enjoy ourselves. Fifty years ago, it wasn’t as normal as nowadays to just take a flight to the other side of the world. Because of lower flight prices, it is perfectly possible these days. We feel like we want it, as if we deserve exactly that. We want to do whatever we want, because we ‘work hard for it’.

As this doesn’t really add up, we make sure we can add it up in our minds. It is a type of self-protection. We make up ‘valid’ arguments to not question our own behaviour. The undeniable consequence of this human action is climate change.


But perhaps there is a solution.

Why not give everyone his/her personal CO2 budget?

This way, products that have a negative effect on climate and sustainability are regulated and checked, like for example meat consumption, flying and driving a car. Everyone can get a certain budget and if it is finished one can buy budget from other people that have not yet finished their budget. This could help us to collectively cause a lower CO2 emission. Individually, we are confronted with the effects of our (luxurious, wealthy, first-world) behaviour.

This idea can also be managed on a national level, based on the number of citizens.

It might be a bit of a crazy idea, but perhaps it is possible to implement. Or do you have a better idea? Please share your ideas in the responses below, cause I would love to read a better solution.

A solution for moral self-licensing?

The question is: What is a solution for this moral self-licensing which is screwing up our sustainability policies?

On a global level, the United States show a kind of moral self-licensing. The United States is one of the top polluters of our (collective) climate. However, as capitalistic as they are, they obviously do not feel much of changing their behaviour. Instead, the current president decided to deny climate change altogether. This way he doesn’t have to accept measurements that limit the growth of businesses of him personally and of his (political) friends.

How can the United States deny climate change? Because of climate change New Orleans flooded during Katrina. Because of climate change Puerto Rico was damaged severely by hurricane Irma. It is also climate change that makes the sea level rise, directly threatening island at the coast of New York State and the most part of Miami. Of course one can just simply deny it, but that doesn’t change climate change. It is happening and will only get worse. Denying the existence of climate change will only make it hit you harder.

Arguing that you can take that transatlantic flight with the high carbon dioxide emission because last year you’ve put an effort into sustainable living, is another type of denial. More info about carbon offsets.

Moral self-licensing. Why not….?

I am very curious about your solution to the moral self-licensing. Especially different points of view from different part of the world are interesting in this discussion.

I am speaking from a European point of view. However, viewers from, say, upcoming economies of India or China might have another point of view. I can totally imagine that the growing middle class in these countries feel like it’s there turn to own a car, explore the world and enjoy luxury. But what about climate change? What about the individual responsibility we have to take care of our fragile climate? What are the public opinions on these matters?

Feel free to respond, share your point of view and respond on others. I am hoping for an active discussion. Just to know, if you’d like to offset your CO2 footprint or flight, there are nice calculators available.

Globalization as the tool to make the world more sustainable

It might be perfectly clear that globalization to a great extent has a cause the climate change that we currently experience. Let’s face it. Because of globalization the distance between countries and people has, so to speak, decreased. Millions of people regularly take a flight, either for holidays, business or to visit family and friends. Flying, however, is extremely polluting and in fact very bad for the environment.

Also, because of globalization many products we use and eat are in fact produced at another place in the world. As the production costs in other places are lower, they are produced there and then transported to the country where the products are sold. This entire chain of transportation is also very bad for the environment. Just remember that not so long ago, we mainly consumed products that were made locally.

In Europe, for example, we never ate avocados until recently. Because of its nutrition, the avocados have gained a lot of popularity in Europa and the United States, resulting in the skyrocketing of sales and, consequently, production. As a result, local environmental decay is emerging in the production countries in Latin America. The transportation of avocados is very costly and a delicate matter. It is damaging the environment. In the transportation process, many avocado’s end up not having the right quality to be sold. They have rotten in the ships or airplanes that transported them to Europa. These fruits are thrown away. Globalization, in this way, causes a chain of pollution and negative environmental effects.

This may be clear to most of you.

As globalization increases, the living standards in second and third world countries are increasing. These people desire the living standards as they are in first world countries. They also want cheap stuff. They want products from all over the world. They want to own a car, a smartphone, a laptop, travel the world, etc. And for your information: the second world countries contain the larger part of the world population. Climate change could increase substantially in de decades to come.

However, could globalization also help in making the world more sustainable?

Counter globalization steps are probably impossible. There is no way that human rationality is going to change direction. We all want more. We all want a comfortable life. We all want to travel and see the world. Globalization, as in the integration of the world, will only increase.

Can globalization, then, be used to make growth more sustainable?

Communication technologies

Many people all over the world have a smartphone. Many people all over the world have access to internet. They are all connected. They have Facebook, Whatsapp or other sorts of social media accounts. A great product of globalization is that the imaginary distance between people on our planet has is in fact decreased the last couple of years and is now quite small.

Very easily I can communicate with people all over the world. The Ask Why Why Not? movement is only a very good example of the growing importance of communication technology.

Can this effect of globalization be used to counter the negative effect of globalization on sustainability?

It is an interesting point brought up by Kyllian Pather in his video on Ask Why Why Not? on Youtube, which can be seen here.

The digital distance between world citizens is so small nowadays. With only a little effort a message can be spread to people all over the world. This is a result of globalization. Internet is gaining more users and gaining importance on a global scale. Internet, in fact, is being seen more and more as a first need in order to survive. I don’t totally agree with that, but internet is a way for a poor person to escape poverty by connecting to the world from his or her home, wherever in the world this home might be located.

If nothing is done, the citizens of upcoming economies as India and China (that is at least 1/3 of the world population) will strive to have the same lifestyle as European or Northern American people. Before they will succeed in that, the world will probably have disappeared. Our climate cannot handle this kind of behaviour.

Why not use internet and social media to spread more sustainable and environmental ways of living under the citizens of India en China, and especially under young citizens? Show a different lifestyle, in which not discovering new countries and cultures, but to discover your own country and culture is the cool thing to do? Or a way of living that is not played in the digital realm, but we go back to interact face-to-face? Or a city in which polluting vehicles are changed for electric vehicles, because it improves the air quality in big cities in Asia and around the world?

It’s all about showing the other side of the coin. We should not focus on the polluting societies and the ways of living in Europa and North America, because they will worsen our living environment. We should invent a new way of living and use technology to spread this way of living.

Minorities can be given a voice through internet and technology. Globalization allows us to be connected to this global way of thinking. This is the way forward (Gordon Brown)

It is up to the young generations

We should do it differently. We are global citizens. The world is directed towards destroying its key features: our climate. We, as young generations, as the citizens of the future, should do it differently. We should redirect our path. We should make sure our future is secure and safe. We should make sure that we are able to survive and reach an old age. If we don’t put an effort into achieving a more sustainable world, who will?

In fact, the younger generations, millennials, are the most sustainability conscious generation yet. Globalization and the digital world of internet teaches us what the consequences are of our actions. We know. Therefore we should act!

The beautiful thing about the Ask Why Why Not-movement is that younger people all over the world are challenged to ask critical questions to themselves. Why do you do certain things the way you do? What are the consequences of your actions or desires? Do you really support the effects of your style of living? Be critical and be self-reflecting. But also: spread the word to people around you or young people all around the world. Technology is our thing, so let’s use it!