The Dangers of Absolutism

There is no doubt that in order to tackle the climate emergency we need to make drastic changes at all levels of society. From the top with governments and the largest corporations in the world, to what we do as individuals, different aspects of our life need to be examined and changed so that we avoid the worse impacts of the climate crisis.

During a recent documentary on veganism in football, Dale Vince, the Chairman of the vegan League Two football club, Forest Green Rovers, discussed veganism with Jermaine Jenas and said: “too often the absolutist approach gets in the way“. It was something that stuck with me because it’s a major problem.

When it comes to environmentalism and veganism, people think you either go all-in on veganism or just don’t bother at all. If you say we should all be cutting down on our emissions, it’s argued that because we are saying it, we should be living carbon-free lifestyles. You might be, but you’re probably living completely off-grid with no electricity and surviving off only food you can grow or forage, and that just isn’t possible for the masses.

This is what absolutism is. It’s this idea that if we’re going to make a change then it has to be a complete change. I.e. Go vegan, or don’t cut down on meat at all. Or that if we preach something, we must be totally in line with that. To stick with the plant-based diet/veganism example, you could just be saying you need to cutting down on your meat and dairy intake. Not cutting it out, just cutting down. Yet, even when you’re cutting down yourself, people will criticise you because you’re not absolutely on a plant-based diet.

This absolutist standard that many of those advocating a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle are held to is dangerous and it slows the progress we need to make as a whole society.

The Expectation of Absolutism

One thing I have noticed by many who criticise those advocating a more climate-friendly lifestyle is that we are expected to suddenly give up any activity that contributes to our carbon footprint. If we don’t completely stop a certain behaviour that contributes to our carbon footprint, we can’t say to people that they should be cutting down.

I recently saw a video where Piers Morgan was actively criticising the leaders of the Extinction Rebellion movement when discussing the recent protests in London and around the world. According to Piers, environmental activists should be living without televisions, no longer driving or any other activity that adds to our carbon footprint. Even when someone is offered transport somewhere, taking them up on that offer is something that is targeted and critiqued by someone who argues in this absolutist paradigm of environmentalism.

That’s just one example of something I’ve seen recently but there are plenty more out there. However, the reality is that being environmentally conscious and protesting for the very needed environmental change we need to avert the climate emergency doesn’t disqualify anyone from participating in today’s modern society.

There’s a good chance that those of us who are conscious about our role in climate change are doing more than the average person to reduce their environmental footprint. That could be a reduced meat intake, taking public transport instead of driving, or any number of small behaviour changes that can easily be done. But this rapid transition to have a zero-carbon footprint that is expected of anyone advocating environmental change just isn’t possible.

Rapid Change just isn’t Realistic

On a global scale, it’s just not realistic. For some it is. Some people can wake up one day and decide they’re going to be vegan, or get rid of their car and find alternate modes of transport, or any one of a number of things that we can do that can reduce our carbon footprint.

But the modern-day society we all live in doesn’t yet allow for that for the masses. We don’t have the perfect solutions to all of the problems we face. Even in the modern technological society we live in, human ingenuity has not yet solved every problem and challenge presented by the climate crisis. Not only that, we as humans do what is easiest, and change isn’t always easy. 

In the past, I have said that technology won’t save us from the climate emergency. It will be very important, particularly when it comes to travel, energy production, carbon sequestration and much more, but it won’t save us.

It’s the behavioural change that will save us. Current and new technologies will just be the tools that help allow that change. Technology can provide alternatives for us but without the want to change our behaviours, we won’t go anywhere. Unfortunately, that will take time as there are over 8 billion (and still rising) people on this planet and, as we’ve seen through political discourse in recent years, some are more resistant to change than others.

The absolutist paradigm that you have to go all-in on environmentally friendly behaviour discourages this change, whether its someone belittling those advocating change or the idea that you have to take a big step in reducing your carbon footprint or there’s no point.

Start with Small Steps

Acting on the climate emergency is of critical importance. The science tells us that we don’t have many years left to reverse the problems we have created for ourselves. The ‘business as usual’ approach that many businesses and even us as individuals take to this day will not solve the climate crisis.

But that doesn’t mean that as you’re reading this you have to change this very second. Small steps are important. Read this and decide, ‘maybe I could go meat-free just one day a week’, ‘maybe I could take the bus or the train or walk instead of driving my car’. Just one small change has a huge impact on your carbon footprint. And that can lead to more smaller steps; you can go two, three, even four days a week without meat in your diet – you may eventually follow a fully plant-based diet every day, for example.

Anyone who preaches an absolutist paradigm isn’t thinking practically, nor realistically. It may have worked for them, but the change that’s required isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Anyone who is critical of those who are preaching change but still fly, or still use cars, or even have a TV, stop. You are putting people off making any change at all and that won’t take us to where we need to get to – it will only slow us down. The majority are practising what they preach, but the society we currently live in doesn’t allow for us to live carbon-free.

So, if you want to make a change, you can. It doesn’t matter how small, any small change matters in the big picture. You will be doing your part. Forget the absolutist paradigm, do what you are currently comfortable to do and more changes will follow.

  1. This is a great read. Absolutism is exactly the term I’ve been looking for to describe this issue. Nobody wants to be made to feel guilty – it prevents people from trying in the first place if it’s too overwhelming, and I think it creates a divide, which isn’t productive.

    I’ve recently started to learn a lot more about sustainable fashion, and I sometimes get the defensive “well, you’re saying fast fashion is bad, but you’re still wearing polyester gym clothes!”. Nobody is expected to be perfect. Small changes add up!

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    1. Absolutely! This idea of absolutism just slows down the progress we need to make as a society

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