Stop living ethically, and start living

Even Conservative leader David Cameron now wants to live a more 'ethical life'. What's going on?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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‘Ethical living’ was once the domain of hair-shirted hippies living in north Wales; now it has been adopted by the urban glitterati. Last week Tory Party leader David Cameron announced that he was planning to add wind turbines to his posh west London home. American Express launched its ethical ‘red card’, which donates 1p out of every pound spent on designer brands to the cause of AIDS in Africa – a campaign endorsed by stars including the supermodel Elle MacPherson.

Ethical clothing has made its way into the high street. Topshop stocks a range of organic and fair-trade baby clothes; the ethical clothing company People Tree has lines in Selfridges. Enamore does sophisticated hemp, while American Apparel does sophisticated cotton prep-wear. Online, the choice of ethical produce is vast. So Organic offers ‘funky organic baby clothes from Hug and Cut 4 Cloth to the purest toys from Keptin-Jr’, while a swathe of companies offer pricey organic eyeliners and lip glosses.

Ethical holidays have gone from the mud hut in the jungle, to luxurious log cabins with designer furniture. Being carbon neutral is cool: it’s practically obligatory for pop bands on tour, a trail blazed by the likes of Coldplay. Meanwhile, organic food has gone from farmers’ markets to delis in west London, with organic supermarkets in the smartest parts of town.

The only criticism levelled at ethical living is that it is a sham. Some bemoan the fact that ethics is becoming just another fashion label; it’s not really about helping the planet or changing your behaviour. You had to get a long-haul flight to your Brazilian eco-holiday, they point out. Fair trade isn’t really that fair. Washable nappies aren’t any more environmentally friendly than disposables. Ray-Bans are Ray-Bans, even if Amex did donate some of their price tag.

But this gets things the wrong way around. When ethical living is just a sham it’s relatively harmless, arguably no worse than other fashion fads. It’s when ethical living is taken seriously that it is a problem.

Ethical living redefines the whole point to life as cleaning up after ourselves. Every action is assessed in terms of impact – more impact, bad; less impact, good. Traditionally, ethics was about pursuing greater goals in life: fostering virtues such as friendship, honour, courage, and overcoming vices such as jealousy and vanity. Ethics was about obligations to other people, expressed in aphorisms such as ‘do as you would be done by’.

Today’s ethical living is merely about the self. ‘My conscience is clear’ is a phrase that trips off the tongue of the purveyors of the eco good life. Whatever happens to the rest of you, they say, I’ve done my calculations and I’m clean. Online calculators allow you to total your carbon impact, with the aim of approaching the desired karma of ‘carbon neutral’. Rather than seeking to do something good in the world, you seek merely to leave the world as you found it. This is a drawn-out apology for existing.

‘Do you really need that?’, is the question always asked. The result is a mean-spirited survivalism in the midst of plenty. Friends of the Earth suggests that rather than give people presents, why not ‘give your time – helping with decorating, gardening, or a big clear out?’ (1). The Guardian’s ethical living columnist Leo Hickman warns against giving flowers: ‘the only truly sustainable alternative is to show your affection to loved ones in other, more imaginative ways, or to carefully source seasonal, preferably organic, flowers grown in the UK, particularly bulb flowers’. He concludes that best of all would be a ‘pot plant’ (2). The Green Choices website asks whether you should really be embarking on that big DIY project, or if you could make do with a ‘subtle revamp’. ‘Is it ethical to have children?’, asked an Observer article earlier this year: ‘Are parents contributing to the future of our planet – or just fuelling an unsustainable population explosion?’

Life becomes an ‘ethical minefield’ to pick your way through. Sources of enjoyment are seen as suspect. According to a Guardian ethical shopping guide, prawns and swordfish should be avoided, and only very specific varieties of salmon and tuna are permitted. The result is a Woody Allenish self-scrutiny, analysing the implications of every action. Hickman tried to work out acceptable ways of doing everything from skiing holidays to banking to pets – and the end result of his efforts was appropriately published in book form as A Life Stripped Bare. This is Puritanism without the promise of redemption; self-restraint is driven not by a desire for transcendence, but by the soulless calculations of the green calculator. ‘Make less mess’ is the prosaic motto of today’s ethical living brigade.

Of course, if putting windmills and solar panels on our roofs were a cheaper and better way of generating electricity, that would be fine. Ditto recycling. But that would be a technical decision about resource allocation, it wouldn’t be an individual ethic. Ethical living is promoted not because it makes rational sense, but because it offers a guide for personal behaviour.

This guide is not just impoverished; it is a cop-out. Ethical living is an excuse for not thinking about real ethics: about our goal in life, about how we treat people, or even on an everyday level about what we eat or wear. Rather than decide what you want to cook that evening, you plump for the one kind of fish that is ethically permitted. Rather than make your own decisions, you live life by the pluses and minuses of green gurus. Get a life.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Modern life

(1) See Friends of the Earth advice for green living

(2) Is it OK … to buy cut flowers?, Guardian, 14 February 2006

(3) See the Guardian’s Ethical shopping guide

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Topics Politics


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