You all remember Al Gore. After losing a vicious battle for the presidency, the former vice president became one of the most ardent supporters of the green movement. His constant presence on television and Capitol Hill, along with his provocative documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, helped change the way we think about conservation and helped spur a global movement toward reducing our impact on the earth. Because of his life’s work, Al Gore is now the owner of an Oscar, a Nobel Peace Prize and a 10,000-square-foot mansion which consumes about 12 times more energy than the typical American home, according to the Associated Press.
Why does there seem to be such an obvious disconnect between the message and the messenger? A 2009 study in Psychological Science may have the answer. As David DiSalvo of Scientific American Mind explains, we are all victims of “riding the moral seesaw.” Our moral behavior can act as a bank account in which charitable acts make deposits toward our moral self-esteem and negative acts make withdrawals. Depending on the size of that bank account, we may feel the need to make more deposits or that we can afford to make withdrawals, acting immorally out of a surplus of moral self-worth.
The danger in this thinking, inherent in human nature, is that morality is viewed as a zero-sum game, in which acting rightly is really just a means to fill a quota. Christians may use good acts to offset sinful acts, rather than striving to do good simply because it is the right thing to do. As long as you have your quota filled, you can behave in whatever way you feel like. At least until your moral bank account runs low, which causes you to put in a few more hours at a shelter or donate money toward a noble cause.
This explains a lot about the inconsistencies in human nature. It explains why some celebrity activists will board gas-guzzling private jets to fly across the country in order to denounce SUV owners for wasting fuel. It explains why waiters can usually expect to receive the worst tips Sunday afternoons from the after-church crowd. It explains why sometimes Christians who do a lot of good through charities and mission work can sometimes be incredibly indifferent toward others they see every day.
In Al Gore’s case, the rationale behind his extravagant energy consumption was that he offsets his home’s energy usage by buying “green power” from a utility program that sells blocks of green energy from renewable sources, which allows him to offset 100 percent of his energy usage. It’s complicated, but the basic premise is that Gore is able to “buy” renewable energy while still enjoying a heated pool, gas lanterns and an electric gate so on paper his carbon footprint is zero.
You can’t offset carbon emissions any more than you can offset immoral behavior. In the same way that Gore still causes air pollution and consumes energy, acting wrongly still means you acted wrongly. Immoral behavior is canceled through grace and forgiveness. You cannot cover your immoral behavior with good actions; you have to stop the behavior altogether. Moral pollution is moral pollution; it is simply an inconvenient truth.