Interview with Dominic Roser, on #climate action; choice editing, Sunday rest and “the drug dealer’s defence”

Dr Dominic Roser (@dominicroser) is a senior lecturer at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland @unifr (climate justice: / and on the board of @EAforChristians. He describes himself as “radically passionate re goals, radically pragmatic re means.” A recent Tweet (see question two) of his caught the eye of the social media editor. Dr Roser kindly agreed to an email interview, which appears, unedited, below.

1. Who are you, what do you work on, how did you become involved in climate change work?

I’m a philosopher with a background in economics, working mainly on climate change. The past years have seen me walking through much of the territory of political philosophy and looking at all of it from the perspective of climate change.

2. You wrote on Twitter recently “I’ve adopted 3 seemingly quite ‘sacrificial’ lifestyle changes some years ago (Vegetarianism, Flights only for work reasons, solid Sunday rest). All of them paid off *a lot* in terms of self-interest due to a single effect: limiting choice. Having less options often feels great.”  Can you say a bit more – especially about the last of those, Sunday rest

Getting those habits ingrained into my everyday life took a bit of work, and committing to them in the first place took a bit of courage, too. But once they’ve been firmly adopted, they actually payed off. It made life simpler, easier, lighter.

I’m bad with decision-making. Decisions cost me lots of effort. I always joke that I’m a philosopher and thus my specialism consists in listing pros and cons of options – in contrast, I’m not good at actually choosing between options. Keeping meat off the menu and leaving flight-only holiday destinations off the table still leaves me with more than enough beautiful options.

When it comes to foregoing flights and meat, the pay-offs for myself weren’t the reason I committed to them. These benefits were more of a fortunate side-effect. Though, to be honest, I’m not sure I would’ve kept up these habits if they hadn’t aligned somewhat with my self-interest. I tried veganism, and the sheer difficulty made me give up again.

Sunday rest is a bit different. My Dad is a pastor and I got used from early on to keep Sunday free from work and also from any other tasks. I loved it. But then it took a deliberate decision to stick to it as a grown-up. I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. Sometimes, if the house is on fire in terms of deadlines and all, I’ll work until Saturday midnight. But then I stop. It just gives me peace of mind to know about this rhythm: whatever I do, there’ll be rest on Sunday. Especially in academia, having such a fence around this one specific day helps when things become overwhelming.

3. This is called “choice-editing” and for a while supermarkets seemed to be doing it around what products they did and didn’t sell).  But the problem is always that if they don’t sell “Bad Thing X” then someone else will (the so-called ‘drug dealer’s defence’).  So, in your view, which social actors, beyond the individual, are best placed to do choice-editing over what behaviours/products?

Huh, hard question!

One comment: habits often can’t be pursued in isolation. Sunday rest is a classical example. Without my family living the same rhythm I can’t do it. Without society reducing activities and busy-ness jointly, it becomes much harder to do. This is relevant to some of the illiberalism worries people have about choice-editing. (The illiberalism worries are often exaggerated anyway, since a lot of choice-editing can be justified by harm avoidance).

In cases where the drug dealer’s defence genuinely applies, i.e. in cases where selling drugs does nothing to limit the supply to drug addicts or to protect the dealer themselves from temptation, this defence is, in my view, not as bad as its name makes it seem. In those cases I’m open to bullet-biting about the justifiability of drug-dealing. I believe we should generally update common sense morality in a consequentialist direction. 

4. What would you say to someone who made the obvious point that individual austerity is not an adequate response to the crises created by the actions of a small subset of humanity?

100% agree that lifestyle changes are not the core solution to climate change etc.

Many agree with me on this, though sometimes for different reasons than I have. For example, I disagree with the claim that climate change is caused just by the rich or the superrich – it’s caused, albeit unequally, by a large fraction of humanity. Also, in contrast to others, I don’t think it would be unfair to ask most individuals in Western countries, even the poorer ones, to commit to emission-saving lifestyle changes. Nor would it be futile, especially if we focused on lifestyle changes where technology and policy are failing.

For me, the key problem with voluntary lifestyle changes is that they have a very bad cost-benefit ratio. They cost a lot of effort and they have comparatively small benefits for the climate. In my view, that is why we should talk less about lifestyle changes. We all have a limited ‘motivational budget’. We should spend it where there’s most bang for the buck in terms of solving climate change. I agree with the fantastic analysis by Founders Pledge that the most efficient thing are donations for policy change and technological progress. These cost-effective actions shouldn’t be crowded out by the more typical lifestyle changes.

5. Anything else you’d like to say.

I think I already said more than enough 🙂

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