How Much Give Can You Get?

Issues Day - St. Mary's Hall Empty Theater

Triple Pundit reviewed a study that shows altruism amongst green product purchasers declines rapidly. In the write up, author BC Upham says, “The study suggests people who have spent money on things they perceive to benefit society as a whole may feel they have “done their good deed for the day” and thus are more likely to choose less altruistically when presented with other ethical quandaries.”

The University of Toronto study goes on to say in the new global ethic that the larger world seems to be espousing, people reactively give out of guilt. “This implies that virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviors.” Then the study says, “Because purchasing green products affirms individuals’ values of social responsibility and ethical consciousness, we predict that purchasing green products will establish moral credentials, ironically licensing selfish and morally questionable behavior.”

Ironically, I think the study, while on target with its findings, has missed a critical component of the social change idea market: Cause fatigue. God knows all of us concerned with social change — green or not — certainly feel tons of pressure from many directions to help society. From local homelessness and domestic issues to global poverty and the environmental crisis, there’s an endless amount of nonprofits and social enterprises begging for our attention.

But how much give can the marketplace get? This study assumes that people will become “selfish” after acting green.

I wonder if that’s the case, or if people only have so much give in them, and when they give to any cause, they’ve taken a step towards meeting their quota. So then this study is wrong in that it implies that people need to do justify badness with goodness. Instead, they have fulfilled their capacity to give and have cause fatigue.

There’s definitely a corollary. Consider how much Haiti got, and then in comparison how little aid Chile received, in spite of a much larger earthquake. Yes, there’s a difference in economic wealth between the two countries, but it doesn’t account for this kind of disparity.

Sooner or later, people need to replenish their charitable spirit by taking care of themselves. Families matter, too, and so does personal welfare. You can’t get water from an empty bucket. Nor should people get a brow beating for doing that. Replenishment is a faith agnostic spiritual axiom.

The end message to successful change organizations is congratulations on your effectiveness. Do what you must to keep these people interested in your cause because loyalty and continued attention will be harder and harder to maintain. Effectiveness will continue to evolve, but in my mind, it includes understanding that there’s only so much give you can get.

Geoff Livingston is a regular contributor to the Live Earth blog.