Why Be Green?

Via Joana Smith
on May 7, 2009
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Why Be Green?



You may have asked yourself this question before;


or perhaps you’ve been asked this question by someone else.


But how does one go about answering it?

Perhaps there is a more fundamental question that must be asked first:

is it better to be green than not to be green?



And even if we can answer this question with a confident ‘yes’, we might still have to respond to a further question:

why choose what is better rather than what is worse?

Why be good rather than bad?


There are a number of answers that inevitably arise,

some more obvious than others,




but each requiring explanation.

The simplest answer is that it is simply better to be good than to be bad.



This answer seems obviously, but trivially true, an apparent tautology. It begs for an explanation.




But when we try to determine what is better about being good, none of the candidates provide definitive answers.



Maybe we can say that being good makes a person “happy.”


But are all people happy with doing good?

Surely not.


Of course there are people who simply enjoy things that are bad for them.


People choose relationships, habits, food, drugs, and media that they know are not good, even for themselves.


Someone might respond that these things are not truly good,

but only appear good to some people.


In a more general way, we could simply acknowledge that everyone has a different idea of what is good, of what pleases them, of what they like.


Some things make some people happy,


while others things make other people happy.


Is there a right way to be happy?


All classical philosophers and some religious people today think there is a clear answer to this question:


either God or nature


has designed individuals to perform a certain function,

with a purpose.


Only those who perform the function of being a human being well

(either being rational, or loving God, or something like this)


fulfill their purpose, and thus are truly happy.




Everyone else may think they are happy, but they are mistaken.


Perhaps this is a satisfactory answer for some,


but if we remain agnostic about such a God,

or such a divine natural order,



then we might have every reason to think that the idea of happiness hasn’t really gotten us anywhere.


We still have to determine which actions will make us truly happy



and which won’t.



These actions turn out to be the same ones that are good.


So we’re back to square one.



Some people might respond that selfishness, or egocentrism, is bad while the opposite of that is good.


One difficulty with this view is that it is not clear what the opposite of selfish egocentrism is.




When people espouse this kind of view, I often think of the Airline Oxygen-Mask Principle.

You know, if you’re traveling with small children or anyone who might need assistance, place the oxygen mask over your head first…



This idea actually has a serious side, something that anyone who has taken a first aid course recognizes:

you are no good to others unless you watch out for yourself.


So, it seems that the boundaries between self and non-self are difficult to determine when it comes to doing good. The idea of selfishness, or non-selfishness, has gotten us right back where we started again;




we still have to determine what it means to do good,


whether that’s for our own sake or for the sake of others.


And presumably, in the bigger picture, whatever is good for others will probably end up being good for me too.



Still other people might appeal to an idea of conscience, or some innate self-regulating principle that inclines us to do good rather than bad.



From the first-person perspective, ‘conscience’ is a very difficult thing for me to understand.

Is it a rational principle that helps guide my calculations about the good and bad, determine which actions are good and which ones bad?


Or is it an irrational principle that punishes and scorns my rational side whenever I choose something that it doesn’t like?


Is it a product of my genetics,


an evolutionary trait that somehow encourages cooperation or some such principle of sociability?



Or is it a product of my culture,


a custom or norm that has been passed down through time? Or is it both?


Well, some people are perfectly happy with saying: yeah, sure, one or the other, or both.

But I see these two lines of questioning as very different.


If our idea of the good comes from culture, then when cultural ideas of the good conflict (as they often do), how am I to determine which one is more good,


which one is truly good?


(We’re back to our original problem.)


On the other hand, the evolutionary-biological basis seems more promising as a general principle of the good.


This is an ongoing avenue of research and there are some indications that it might lead us somewhere, but I am skeptical. To me, nature does not appear to be good, or bad. It seems rather amoral. Is there anything inherently good or bad about the motion of subatomic particles and forces?


What would the good even mean in the natural-physical world?

Isn’t nature just a random series of collisions, interactions, destruction, and creation? Is it any more good than bad?


Perhaps reason allows us to determine what the good is.


Indeed, this is the route taken by most modern philosophers who think that there is a real, independent, idea of the good.


There is some dispute about how we ought to define the good–

some think good actions are intrinsically good, they stem from duties or moral obligations;


others think that actions are only extrinsically good, they are good to the extent that they maximize good consequences–



but either idea of the good is a rational idea, one that can be determined by extending the scope of our concept of the good, making it as universal as we can.


If we take the route of moral duties (called deontology), we might say that it is good to be green because we have a duty to the global environment, the planetary ecosystem. This duty would be predicated on the idea that the well-being of the global environment is a necessary condition for the well-being of humanity.


We have a duty to promote the well-being of humanity as a whole (an idea espoused clearly by Immanuel Kant, the original deontologist), so we have a duty to promote the well-being of the global environment.


If we take the route that maximizing the good consequences of our actions is what is good (called consequentialism),


then we might say that being green is the only way


to maximize good consequences.


Of course this is vague, and consequentialism comes in many stripes, but I think we can be more specific without being long-winded. Almost all consequentialists will agree that we are trying to produce the best sorts of consequences and the greatest quantity of them when viewed from a neutral standpoint.

Sure, neutrality is difficult to achieve, but if we just look at, say, pleasure, I think we might be able to get an empirical grasp on what might count as maximizing happiness.

Now, try to imagine that you can measure the total amount of pleasure being produced in the world at this given moment (we needn’t consider those pesky, lower sentient beings–animals–just think of the pleasure experienced by humans).

Extend this into the future indefinitely. It ebbs and flows, but it is largely tied to the physical well-being of the people on the planet.


(Now go watch Waylon’s interview with Lester Brown.)


You get the idea. If we continue to burn fossil fuels that produce unsustainable quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere, there is no f***ing way we are going to be able to maximize the total amount of pleasure for all human beings for very long into the future.

Now, you might think that a few people (namely those that burn a bunch of fossil fuels) would experience a temporary spike in happiness and that this might make up for all the future unhappiness of those people who drown, lose their livelihoods in natural disasters, and die from disease or famine. But, interestingly, it turns out that the biggest polluters do not necessarily report the highest happiness.

Though those in developed countries certainly fair better than those in undeveloped countries, this seems to have a lot more to do with freedom, education, and security than money or expenditure of money (= burning fossil fuels). And even if we contemplated such an exchange of happiness, the idea seems hopelessly morbid and unjust: a few people living fat while the rest slowly die (yuck!). Even if there existed such philosophical inventions as the Utility Monster or the Experience Machine that would allow us to extend the happiness of a few to indefinitely large quantities, such ideas become ludicrous when brought into the world of practice. How would one power an experience machine I’ve often wondered (with nuclear or coal-fired power plants)? How can we sustain massive levels of happiness for any length of time that would balance out the massive human suffering caused by rising oceans, natural disasters, drought, and disease brought on by global climate change?




So these modern ethical theories have helped us get a grasp on what it might look like to argue that being green is being good. Either we have a duty to the well-being of humanity, in which case we have a duty to the well-being of the planet, or we recognize the empirical facts about global climate change and realize that green actions are the only ones that are going to enable us to extend or increase human happiness very far into the future. But even if we think these arguments are convincing, doesn’t our earlier question still remain: why should we choose to be good rather than not? Why should we be green rather than not? Maybe in some abstract, purely rational, objective, or duty-bound way we can see that it is good to be green. But what’s my motivation? Why should I want to be good?


Well, why should I want anything?


Look, I’ve got news for you:

I don’t think there is any rational explanation for why we should choose to be good rather than not choose to be good.


But I do think that choosing to be good is closely related to choosing anything at all. What I mean is that I don’t think there is any basis for our wanting to be good, but then I don’t think there is really any basis for our wanting anything at all. When I say ‘want’, I mean something different from ‘need’, i.e., something different from satisfying the physical necessities of life. What I mean by ‘want’ is what we choose above and beyond our immediate necessities. Why should we want anything at all?


I submit to you that there are no answers to that question, but the ones we construct.


When I say ‘we’, I don’t mean each individual person on his or her own, as if we construct our wants out of tin blocks and paper maché,

I mean ‘we’ in the sense of the ‘we’ of humanity, of history, culture, society, and world.


In a certain sense, we as individuals do not construct our wants any more than we choose our births. But we do live out our wants, in the same way that we live out our lives. Our wants are the intentions the move us step by step along the path of life, an irredeemably finite and largely contingent life to be sure, but–importantly–our life.


That we should want the good goes hand in hand with our wanting anything at all,


To want is to decide one path rather than another.

Nothing but us determines our path.

Our choices and actions propel us along it, our habits and characteristics define it, but it is ours and ours alone.


Why be green? Why be good? Why want? Why love? Why learn? Why open your eyes in the morning?

Because it’s better. That’s all.





~Nathan and Joana Smith



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About Joana Smith

Who I'd like to meet: Superman's Children, eco-warriors, truck drivers, persephone, roller derby queens, nurses, scientists, givers, priests, yogi, storytellers, people who don't know right now, playwrights, philosophers, people who are more visual, people who hop trains, performers, poets, seamstresses, activists, Spider-Man, kids, rangers, Snow White, dj's, massage therapists, people who work with their hands, bunnies, sportsracers, people who work in offices, dancers, baristas, artists, cleaners, climbers, Jeff's sister, Colbert, Skiers, Bikers, skaters, surfers, ani, people who are recovering, trees (and flowers), people who will die soon, gardeners, horses, Jolie-Pitt, soon-to-be mothers, margie's daughter, astronomers, people who are scared, girls who wear black and listen to the Smiths, cuffmakers, lambs, Miranda July, the man in the moon, Bono, people from 'round here, Obama...


8 Responses to “Why Be Green?”

  1. rachel says:

    wow you two………… now that's some serious food for thought!
    thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Mariana says:

    Joanna, I really love your photographic-philosophic essays!… But this one, made in collaboration, is more than that. It's to think about a lot. Seriously!!! Thank you for put your thoughts into words (and images as well!!!!)

  3. dalia says:

    Hi Joana, this was a very good collaboration. I really liked the surprise ending… why want? It is a good answer!

    Thanks to both of you~~ also from Luke 🙂

  4. JoanaSmith says:

    Rachel, your comments are so important. Thanks. Have you seen Waylon's post?
    Is the Neighborhood still doing films?

  5. Chuck says:

    Wow a keeper. I will have to ponder this one a bit more. It should be a "good" idea.