Editorials, Opinion

A dangerous fallacy: ‘If they’re polluting, why shouldn’t we?’

It’s an old fallacious argument — a variation of the bandwagon fallacy (“everyone else is doing it”) that goes like this: Everyone else is misbehaving, so why should I have to behave?

It’s one that Sen. Joe Manchin hinted at Tuesday when he made sure to mention that developing countries like China and India are increasing coal production and use while the U.S. pushes for renewables too quickly. (Emphasis on “devoloping.” The U.S. underwent its coal-fueled industrial revolution decades ago, while developing nations are just now reaching that point.) It’s a timely argument, too, considering leaders from 130 countries are meeting this week to discuss climate change, and two of the world’s biggest polluters, Russia and China, aren’t in attendance. 

In the context of fossil fuels, renewable energy and climate change, it’s the argument that countries shouldn’t have to make changes and sacrifices — such as transitioning away from coal and gas and cutting down carbon emissions — because other countries aren’t doing anything. Let’s look at the issue from the perspective of this analogy:

You live in a lakeside community. In this fictional lakeside community, all the drinkable and usable water comes from the lake, and the lake has a natural filtration system that allows it to remove a limited amount of waste, but there’s no other way to filter the water. Most people in your community are pretty good about not throwing trash or filthy water into the lake, but sometimes poop happens. However, there are a handful of neighbors who just don’t care. Those neighbors constantly dump litter and drain their toilets into the lake.

The lake can clean itself to a certain extent, but because of your neighbors, the water is getting a little gross. You and the other good members of the community confront them, but the polluting neighbors shrug you all off. There is little you can do; you can fine them and bar them from block parties, but that’s it.

Since you can’t force them to stop, what do you do?

Do you continue to do what you’ve been doing: not adding any more waste, but not removing any from the lake either?

Do you keep your own polluting down, and you and other community members help remove litter from the lake so the natural filtration system can work better?

Or do you decide, “Screw it. If they can dump their poop in the water, so can I”?

That last option is what Manchin hinted at Tuesday and it’s the stance too many have taken. But the problem with the final scenario is, if more people decide to dump their waste into the lake, soon the water will be undrinkable and squalid, and the entire community that depends on it will die out.

Our planet is the lake. We only get the one, and it can only do so much to heal itself. And if every country puts its own convenience first, the planet becomes uninhabitable that much quicker.

Climate change is a global problem, but with hyper-local consequences, and it requires a global response. Scientists around the world are ringing the alarm that we are at a critical junction, and the steps we take now will set the course of global warming for the next hundred years. Mainly: Can we keep the global temperature from reaching catastrophic levels?

Like the slacker on a group project, there will always be a few countries that stand as an obstacle to the greater goal, but they cannot be permitted to halt forward progress, and we cannot use them as an excuse for our own inaction.