Mistakes I’ve made part 3: Poor sacrificial accounting

There was a time when I routinely refused car travel, in favor of my more sustainable bicycle. Not always, but I had a high bar—if it was bucketing down with rain and I had no plastic pants, this was not sufficient excuse for instance. I would sometimes decline a ride even when others were purportedly driving somewhere anyway, to avoid encouraging them to be ‘driving anyway’ more often. I did enjoy cycling, on a good day, but many days weren’t good. People at school laughed at me on my bike, so sometimes I walked instead because I couldn’t stand them looking at me. Refusing cars was often a sacrifice.

My concern was the climate. My basic model of ‘sustainability’ was this: humanity has a bunch of resources, and when they run out we all die. If we use them slow enough, they can mostly last forever, but if we use them faster, we will die soon. Much like a bank account that earns lots of interest, or can be spent down in an afternoon. Space in the atmosphere for greenhouse gasses was a key resource. Driving was known to be unsustainable: it added carbon dioxide to the atmosphere faster than could be supported. This model has a few problems I think, but it is debatable, and this blog post is not about them. So lets suppose for now that I was right, and every car trip took humanity a notch closer to annihilation.

Given that driving was unsustainable, I wanted people to stop driving, so we wouldn’t all die. Naturally, it followed that I should not drive (I thought). If the cost of a billion people driving was too great for the benefits of a billion people driving, then the cost of one of those people driving was probably too great for the benefit of that person driving. Furthermore, I seemed a particularly easy person to convince, from my perspective. Furthermore, the benefit of me getting to school sooner and with dry pants was obviously unimaginably minuscule compared to any decrement in humanity’s ability to survive in the long term.

This is all very wrong. Why? Let’s say cycling cost me ten minutes per day (it took more like half an hour per day, but driving also takes time, and cycling had some benefits, such as exercise). If I had spent this 5h per month on writing about the problem, I think I could have convinced more than one person ever to habitually ride a bike. If I had just earned money and given it to an organization specializing in this, they probably could have done better. This is an empirical question, so maybe not, but the problem was that I didn’t even look for such things.

One way to think about this is to say that I was wrong in thinking myself an especially cheap person to change. I might be easy to communicate with and readily convinced (from my perspective). I might be able to get on a bike right now, whereas I had not much idea how to convince anyone else. But I am an extremely expensive person to use the time of (from my perspective), because I am one of the few people who is on board with my schemes and willing to do what I tell myself, and so my own time is one of the few resources that can be spent on the plan of forwarding my values. And given this, there are ways to leverage ten minutes of my time into more than an extra bike ride’s worth of value.

Relatedly, I didn’t compare between options further afield. Even if unsustainable transport was set to destroy the world, and personal action was the cheapest way to get change, it does not follow that I should cycle. For instance, maybe it is even more important to change people’s unsustainable purchasing behavior, and I should have spent that time purchasing things better. Or earning money, and spending it on forwarding sustainability in other ways. Or thinking about how robots might destroy the world more imminently.

More fundamentally, my error was comparing the costs of my sacrifice to what was gained by it, instead of comparing my gains to what I might have had instead. This was both the wrong comparison, and naturally blinded me to the better purchases I might have made. If the question you ask is whether cycling everywhere is worth a tiny fraction of the future, then there is no reason to check how valuable reading about geoengineering is.

So this is what I would tell my younger self. Whether your personal sacrifices are money, time or frustration, you should usually be comparing the benefits of making one personal sacrifice to the benefits of making another. You should not be comparing the personal cost of making a personal sacrifice to the benefits of making that sacrifice. Because what matters is ‘opportunity cost’—the value of the next best option that you are foregoing. And rarely is the next best option to ramp up your leisure budget. Usually the next best option is making a sacrifice for something else overwhelmingly valuable; something measured in units of humanity’s future, or in senseless torment averted. This is true whether you are willing to sacrifice everything for the greater good, or only a tiny bit. Either way, you should spend the sacrifices you make on the best things sacrifices can buy.

12 responses to “Mistakes I’ve made part 3: Poor sacrificial accounting

  1. Suppose you give up cycling but spend the time you save by driving writing papers in which you provide a compelling and strong moral argument in favor of cycling rather than driving. (1) Is it hypocritical not to “practice what you preach” in this way? (2) If it is hypocritical, is the fact that it is morally problematic? Philosophy graduate student over here. Also a vegan (heh). I worry about this sort of thing often, though perhaps my moral concerns are slightly different. For example, I wonder how one can sincerely endorse, defend, or promote a moral commitment (for example, a commitment to the view that animal suffering matters morally) without at the same time doing all the relatively cheap actions/omissions that express one’s commitment.

    • Regardless of the philosophical issues, there’s a practical issue of making it easy or hard for people to call you a hypocrite. From that perspective, practicing what you preach is signaling with the intent to convince people that you really do believe the things you claim to believe (and aren’t just, I dunno, trying to trick them into donating their money to you).

      • Signaling with the intent to convince people that you really do believe the things you claim to believe might be a sufficient condition for practicing what you preach, but it is not a necessary one. You might signal with a different intent and still be practicing what you preach.

        You might think it’s a bit weird for a person who practices what she preaches to intend to signal anything at all. You might think, for example, that Julie’s intent to convince others that she really does believe that animal welfare matters morally does not by itself make her veganism an instance of practicing what you preach. Maybe it’s just foresight? I’m not sure.

        One more: Do you think that hypocrisy is intrinsically connected to signaling? I suppose it might be, if we assume that we are just talking about your practical issue of making it easy or hard for other people to call you a hypocrite, and not the more philosophical one about whether there can be private hypocrites.

  2. “But I am an extremely expensive person to use the time of (from my perspective), because I am one of the few people who is on board with my schemes and willing to do what I tell myself, and so my own time is one of the few resources that can be spent on the plan of forwarding my values.”

    This was extremely nicely phrased. Thanks for that thought.

  3. There might be more problems with your accounting. Was the cost to you of biking more or less than the estimated social cost of carbon saved by biking instead of driving?

    See http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/EPAactivities/economics/scc.html for an example of social cost of carbon estimates (said to be likely an underestimate – if you think so, you could fudge it upwards)

    The EPA also uses an estimate of 8.887 × 10-3 metric tons CO2/gallon of gasoline, so the listed cost in that link would be for 112.5 gallons of gas used.

  4. It seems like there’s this huge gap in the overall dialog about sustainable habits and practices, where there are few to no resoruces that really dive into the level of benefit brought about by one habit or another that would help people decide how they could direct their energy. For instance, every day I re-use a ceramic coffee cup instead of using a paper cup, which saves a paper cup but DOES use some water, and also I usually dry it off with a paper towel and throw that out. What’s the impact of saving that cup vs using the additional water and a paper towel? How might this be different if I used the dishwasher instead of washing by hand? Is it possible I’m actually harming the environment by doing this? It may seem trivial but it seems actually fundamentally important for people to be able to get an educated answer on what benefit they getting from certain habit and sacrifices – but in most cases that information seems really difficult to find. As a result I am frequently left evaluating my decisions on the level of sacrifice required (because the more inconvenient it is, the more good must be happening right?) instead of how much benefit is actually realized by the change.

  5. Realistically though… how likely is someone to spend that extra time on doing any one of those things. More likely you would have slept in a little longer in the morning, become more frustrated at life due to being stuck in traffic, and felt guilty about being hypocritical. The stress reduction and increased exercise benefits most likely make cycling worth even if you eliminate environmental considerations, and you being healthy and happier is probably more likely to make you productive in what you do therefore more likely to convince others/write blogs/earn money to fight climate change.

  6. Given the information you had, I think you made the right decision to commit to relying sustainable transport. In other words, would you have been doing the right thing if you had driven or accepted rides while believing that those actions produced a net bad effect? (How much sense would it make to feel right for having unintentionally made the right decision?)

    I find it interesting that many people have seemingly independently stumbled upon the idea of going carfree for environmental (not that there aren’t other) reasons. When people curious to see me not driving have asked me about bicycling or riding the bus, I ask them consider what it will cost them. There are many people who live within walking distance or a reasonably short transit ride to work & shopping who, for right or wrong reasons, have committed, by choice of where they live, to doing the “right” thing.

  7. I don’t understand the logic of cycling to protect the environment. It seems cutting meat consumption in half is more comfortable, just as valuable for the environment, and reduces animal pain to boot. If you otherwise follow a standard western diet, it is probably just as healthy as the extra exercise.

  8. Pingback: Mistakes #4: breaking Chesterton’s fence in the presence of bull | Meteuphoric

  9. Pingback: Mistakes #5: Blinded by winning | Meteuphoric

  10. Pingback: Mistakes #6: Identifying reality slowly | Meteuphoric

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