Addiction. A note on the debate about the climate crisis

It’s about five years ago that I quit smoking. There were at least two things that helped greatly in kicking the habit. Firstly, the common view had changed: smoking was no longer seen as a personal choice but as an addiction. This had repercussions on my own view and made it seem less attractive, to put it mildly. Secondly, the infrastructure had changed increasingly: in most places smoking was no longer permitted by then. When I grew up, I wouldn’t have anticipated these changes. Smoking, it seemed, had become part of my identity: at parties and other events I was one of the people who smoked. That was fine. It no longer is. – I’d like to suggest that our discussion of the climate crisis might benefit from a comparison to smoking habits: Like smoking, the climate crisis is connected to a number of harmful practices. Many societies have successfully banned smoking. So perhaps such a comparison can help us in steering towards a state in which we successfully overcome at least some of these harmful practices. Let me focus on two points:

(1) Moral problems: Smoking can be seen in relation to a number of moral problems. It obviously harms others and the smoker. But there is another problem that was often ignored: In the public debate, smokers were often attacked for choosing to smoke. But if we consider smoking an addiction, something is wrong with that accusation. An addict doesn’t simply choose between two options. If things are really bad, the smoker is compelled to smoke. What is the moral problem in that? Well, holding someone responsible who has not that much of a choice might be the wrong way of addressing the issue. – It’s at this point that I see a crucial analogy to the habits related to the climate crisis. Many things we do are so deeply ingrained that it makes sense to see them as addictions: If we treat gambling, smart phone use, drugs etc. as addictive, it might make sense to treat driving cars, eating meat and dairy products and many other habits at least as quasi-addictive. They might be said to involve rewards and to be compulsive (to some degree) rather than plainly chosen. In any case, following the discussions on the climate crisis triggers many memories of the discussions about the smoking ban. In admitting to the addictive character of habits, the public discussion could move from the current practice of blaming each other (and looking for the greatest hypocrite) to ways of thinking about overcoming the addictions involved.

(2) Motivational problems: This brings me to my second issue. Wondering whether to quit smoking, I benefitted greatly from the amended infrastructure. It’s hard to see smoking as part of your identity if it’s banned everywhere. At the same time the changed moral perception helped. I couldn’t frame myself as a youthful outcast who gets morally antagonized by the mainstream for making bad choices. Rather I could view myself as someone who needs help. In this sense, the legal and social infrastructure were a great motivational factor: with many of the social rewards gone, it was much easier to realistically project a future self without a packet of cigarettes. – The same goes of course for climate crisis related habits. Once it becomes increasingly unacceptable and impractical to drive a car or eat meat, all the social rewards dwindle.

The upshot is that I think we should stop treating people who indulge in certain climate-related habits as if they were failing personally. So long as our society and infrastructure rewards such habits, it makes more sense to see them as quasi-addictions.

Currently, we often distinguish between personal and political failures in the climate crisis. I’m not convinced that this is a good distinction. So-called personal failures are often driven by our social, cultural and technological infrastructure. If we want change, we need to stop passing blame on individuals who will only feel encouraged to look for hypocrisies. What we need is help both to amend our addictions and infrastructure. In this regard, we might benefit from looking at the successful aspects of the smoking ban.

5 thoughts on “Addiction. A note on the debate about the climate crisis

  1. Hello Martin,
    Thanks for your insightful and interesting article. However, I (respectfully) disagree with your conclusion. In my opinion, as a person living in our current timeslice there are basically three (possibly more) ways you may contribute to preventing Climate Change from turning into a catastrophe: don’t lie, don’t be shy, don’t fly.

    1. Don’t lie. This just amounts to not believing the people-gone-nuts who believe in a flat earth or that they are better equipped to know about the state of our climate then 99% of the scientists. Even more important, don’t fool yourself too much into thinking ‘things are OK’. They’re not. This amounts to your epistemic duty, which should motivate you.

    2. Don’t be shy. Speak up about the current state of affairs. Especially against the current right-wing extremists like the American and Brazilian presidents. Write blogs or speak with friends about these things. Even more importantly, do not ever vote for people who want to nuke hurricanes or who refuse to use French-made pencils, since Macron insulted their male feelings, although at the same time the Amazone is burning. It’s very weird to see the world run by 7-year old children. And then I insult almost all children today, who show far more compassion to nature then these male macho’s. Maybe the Kantian ‘scope of the moral community’ should be redefined and based on the (lack of) testosteron; the higher the t-level, the less moral insight.

    3. Don’t fly. As philosophers, we may switch and become vegetarian or even vegan. This is cool of course, but what we should do, even more, is restrict our flying. Just stop flying and take the train or the ferry. Or at least restrict it and go by train to Spain, not with the plane (pun unintended). We as philosophers, who love to go by plane to conferences, have a duty to set the right standard. Ok, when you go to America, China or India, you may be excused. But within Europe; why not ask your University for restitution and funding for you traveling by train? Also much more relaxing and nicer. It is simply our duty.

    So my conclusion would be quite Kantian: it amounts primarily to your own choices and (epistemic) duties. Oh yes, and a different restriction of the moral community.


    1. Thanks, ClimateDude, for your response! – I guess I agree with your three points. But I also fear that (epistemic and other) duties don’t sufficiently motivate… Let’s look at your first suggestion to simply not believe “the people-gone-nuts …”. If we assume for a moment that I am right that believers are addicted, then epistemic devices don’t help: A smoker or an alcoholic might very well *know* that their actions have undesired consequences; they might even want to stop. So what is going to help them? Saying “don’t smoke or drink”? Not sure. What might help more is to cut the link between smoking or drinking and social rewards. It won’t do all the work, but it strikes me as a start. –
      As you notice yourself, not everyone is making the chocies necessary to prevent climate change on this threatening scale. Since prevention requires massively collective action and sustainable change of the status quo, we (those convinced that action is necessary) need to convince others. While I agree that we might and should make certain choices (such as the ones you detail), I am wondering how to win over those who “sit on the fence” and might hop down one side or the other. – You present this as a matter of choice (and probably would want to convince others through leading by example). That’s fine as far as it goes. But I am doubtful that such a choice is always possible or sustainable. (Even leaving aside all those people who are not in a sufficiently good position to even consider choices as feasible.)
      Why? Well, looking at discussions, I sense a lot of resistance, resentment and denial. And part of it might be amplified by moral polarisation. A sad but obvious example are the ceaseless charges of hypocrisy (and worse) that Greta Thunberg or more vocal climate scientists are receiving. (I’m following Stefan Rahmstorf, a climate scientist who engages in a lot of outreach, on twitter and am regularly taken aback by the hostility he is exposed to) This polarisation has to be overcome if we want to win over others. And my suggestion would be: Rather than say “you are bad; you should do X”, try and see your interlocutor as someone in need of help to let go of a bad habit. Once you see that, you can see that it’s not (just ) your interlocuter who needs to change, but a whole infrastructure that still rewards and incentivises the bad habits. This way we can engage in common project. – So what we need is help in the sense of prohibitions. If you ban flying, people will stop without needing to be told that they are bad people.

      (PS. I’m not sure what you mean by a “different restriction” of the moral community, but I would hope that you’re not advocating war.)


  2. Hello Martin,

    Thanks for your reply. I agree with most of your points, but still I think we, as philosophers, might teach by way of moral example (i.e. restrict our flying). And what I mean by a different restriction of the moral community is simply excluding Trump and Bolsonaro as morally relevant speakers. Traditionally children, ‘idiots’ and other ‘irrational people’ were excluded as morally capable autonomous speakers. Now worldwide they have become the most autonomous and morally authoritative voice in the Climate Change debate.
    Not sure why you thought I might support ‘war’ (by whom? towards whom?). I hate violence; I simply thought we shouldn’t listen anymore to the macho-authoritarian leaders of tje West and East as morally relevant speakers.


    1. Thanks again! Yes, you’re right. That’s why I welcome the new flying policies of universities, ruling that they won’t allow for flights below a certain distance. My own uni, Groningen, implemented that, as well as Basel (?). I hope others will follow soon and will make a lot of noise about that. – As for the exclusion you suggest: I agree and often find myself wondering why we give so much airtime (in newspapers etc.) to people like Trump and others. Can’t we just report on “governments”, rather than featuring these individuals?!
      But while I’d hope for such a diversion of attention, I wondered how we should carry out your suggested restriction. I mean, of course you can block your ears. But what if you more than that? What if you want to undermine the power and impact of their speeches? – Excluding someone from the moral community would mean that they have no say. But how do you strip very powerful people (and their adherents) of their right to speak? – If you don’t accept the democratic measures that have endowed these people with power, you seem to advocate for stronger measure, unde,ocratic ones. – NB: I’m not saying *you actually* advocate war. I just wondered about the consequences of wanting to strip a group of people of their rights.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s