According to Helmut Schoek (Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour), envy is a driving force behind the way societies are structured. And when a society succumbs to the collective force of individual envy, it inevitably slides toward one of the various -isms that filled 100 million graves in the twentieth century.
Sustainability is a recent manifestation of a certain strain of envy. This strain, though usually veiled behind rising cries of altruistic concern, is envy through-and-through. And like a virus, it is ever-present, and sometimes epidemic.
In the 70s, the virus was relatively benign. Those suffering from the ailment would occasionally accuse someone in a fancy German car of supporting the Holocaust. It made the envious feel a tad better—momentarily, anyway.
According to the envious, their accusations did not arise from the fact that they—the rich—had what we—the envious—wanted. Instead, the envious claimed their accusations were nothing other than an expression of disgust that the rich had cars built by companies with historical ties to the Nazi machine. Plausible, but not marketable. So, while the ailment spread, it never went truly viral, so to speak.
But then came the seal pups. Envy had softened its edge and become more subtle. Instead of, “rich man in his fancy car,” it was, “seal killer.” This allowed those who despised the success of others to claim they were justified in throwing paint on expensive fur coats. And who dared defend the rich over seal pups bludgeoned on beaches of the Newfoundland and elsewhere?
As with all epidemics, it ended as resistance grew. Yet, the virus changed slightly and reappeared as climate change. And, just as before, envy was veiled behind cries of concern. While “seal killers” was too parochial, impending destruction of the earth was garishly global. The cries of climate change quickly reduced any remaining resistance and another viral epidemic of envy ensued.
Now that two decades without warming have finally immunized the masses, the envy virus has morphed into sustainability—a concept that can never be defined, and never has to be.
Regardless of appearances, sustainability is simply one more manifestation of envy.
Certainly, this is only one thread through recent trends toward collectivism. Nevertheless, this is true: those who cannot control their envious hearts continually look for some sleight of hand to misdirect attention from their own sins. And, in doing so, nudge us ever closer to a slide toward those vile -isms.
Editor’s question How much does envy drive sustainability compared to the other deadly sins?