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False Dichotomies Are False

Cutting carbon emissions requires both household behavior change and government intervention. Neither alone will do the job. It seems obvious to me that this is not an either/or choice. When I get into debates with friends on the topic, it doesn’t take long for everyone to come around to “False dichotomies are false.”

But still people are picking sides. This is dumb and we should stop.

As Kris De Deckers says in “We Can’t Do It Ourselves”

individual behavior is in fact the observable expression of the social world

The choices people make about energy use in their lives are highly constrained by available infrastructure and social norms. My commuting calculus has changed substantially this year, for obvious reasons, but prior to the pandemic I was torn between taking the bus to work, taking on equitable parenting responsibilities, and being available for coworkers during the expected hours.

Optimizing for typical in-office hours and taking the bus would rule out handling daycare pick-up or drop-off. Making sure I was available for getting the kids would have added a substantial amount of calendar juggling to my week to find alternate meeting times.

I’m not saying it was impossible: I have coworkers who figured it out, even some with substantially longer commutes than my own. My point is just that the choice about whether to take the bus instead of driving is, in fact, entangled with trade-offs across several other areas of my life.

Having everyone who is able to work from home during the pandemic has completely eliminated my dilemma, but there are structural changes outside of my individual power that could have helped. If there was more public funding for mass transit and higher frequency bus routes, I would have had more room to make schedule trade-offs. If my company adopted a core hours policy for meetings, then I could count on flexibility around my commute times.

This is just one example of how the choices we make are deeply entangled with the rest of society. Changing household habits is necessary to reduce demand for fossil fuels, but right now in many parts of the U.S, choosing a lower-emissions lifestyles isn’t just a matter of foregoing benefits. It also requires taking on additional costs.

Households need help from their employers, from municipalities, from the market, from the government at large to change the incentive structure for our choices. If the incentive structure changes, norms will follow.

Now why we do have a hard time experimenting with policies that promote more sustainable lifestyles and get stuck on the false dichotomy of individual versus industrial responsibility? Hmm. I wonder if there are people who have a vested interest in keeping things exactly as they are.