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Logical fallacies and the environment: unrealistic and hypocritical environmentalists

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Like the previous post, this one discusses charges of inconsistencies aimed at environmentalists, namely that they are hypocrits and have lost touch with reality.  Imagine being told:

Really?  You drove to participate in the march in support of public transit? Ha! That tells me that transit just doesn’t work, and it also tells me you’re a hypocrite: you just want other people to take transit.

All activists – not just environmentalists – have had to put up with such put downs, such as expressed in the picture above.  As expressed in the above example, such put-downs contain two fallacies, ones which are not easy to resolve into classic thinking errors.  But I will argue that they are versions of the Appeal to Tradition fallacy, for one, and the Ad Hominem fallacy, for the other.

The Appeal to Tradition takes the following form, a bald statement of impossibility: “it’s just unrealistic to think we can /expand transit/get away from fossil fuels/provide affordable housing/eliminate poverty/etc.”  The problem here is equating “hasn’t been done” with “can’t be done”.  If anything, it denotes a failure of the imagination, but also, insome cases, a definite mental laziness: examples of what alledgedly is impossible may already exist, whether we’re discussing transit (European cities), fossil fuels avoidance (Denmark), housing (Germany), or poverty (Bhutan or Finland).  None of these are perfect examples, but they show progress is indeed possible; arguing otherwise is committing the fallacy called Appeal to Ignorance.

People often underestimate how much things can change. Canadian environmental activist Tzeporah Berman recounts a conversion with her grandmother :

After attending the UN negotiations in Bali, I spent a week with my ninety-two-year-old grandmother, not long before she died.  One day we were sitting in the hospital and I told her about my despair.  She said “I don’t want to hear any more about how hard it is, how big it is, and that you don’t know if it can work.  When your mother was growing up, when I was having my seven children, we didn’t have a phone.  We had a party line.  We didn’t have a car.  No one had their own car.  We had just gotten electricity…you need to hold on to fact that the world can entirely change in your lifetime.”

Along the same lines, BC artist Franke James created a work about change, below:

franke james

The second fallacy in this argument is a form of Ad Hominem, but it comes up so often that I’ll give it a name: the hypocrite fallacy.  It is a clear ad-hominem because the attack is against the speaker, not the argument.  But the attack is sharpened by a charge of hypocrisy: the speaker does not practice what he preaches.  At fist glance, indeed, it would seem difficult to grant any kind of credibility to such a person.

The fallacy lies in the distinction between what is a personal decision and one which involves the broader society.  It would be hypocritical, indeed, to advocate for vegetarianism while being a meat eater.  But advocating against a particular pipeline, for divestment from fossil fuel companies, let along for policies that encourage green energy, all involve society choices.

The distinction is important, and the charge of hypocrisy when there is little personal choice can do has riled environmentalists enough to generate several good rebuttals (here, here or here, for instance). I’ll quote from Ethan Cox:

As human beings, we make decisions both individually and collectively. In the case of climate change, only a charlatan with shares in a compact fluorescent light bulb factory would try to argue that individual actions are sufficient to address the problem we face.

“To say it is hypocritical to divest while still using fossil fuels is equivalent to telling parents they must remove their children from class while advocating for better schools,” wrote Jamie Henn of in a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe. “We must fight in the world we have, not the world we want.”

Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes told The Nation why the “but we all use fossil fuels argument” is flawed in an April interview.

“Of course we do, and people in the North wore clothes made of cotton picked by slaves. But that did not make them hypocrites when they joined the abolition movement. It just meant that they were also part of the slave economy, and they knew it. That is why they acted to change the system, not just their clothes.”


Note: As instructors we’re expected to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. This is the last post in this series (for a while!).  The previous post was on circular reasoning.


Written by enviropaul

April 15, 2016 at 10:38 am

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  1. […] Since I spent a fair bit of time on logical fallacies in my last class, I could not not ask a question about them in the final test.  In class we discussed Ad Hominem, Appeal to Tradition, Circular Reasoning, Ecological, Either-Or, Gambler’s, Hasty Generalization, Hypocrisy, Non-Sequitur, Sharpshooter’s, Slippery Slope, and Strawman; the last one of the series is here. […]

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