Sustaining Envy—Guest Post by Jim Fedako

The eternal question: To fry or to roast?
The eternal question: To fry or to roast?

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?


  1. Scotian

    Two other books that address this theme are Robert Sheaffer’s “Resentment Against Achievement” and Ludwig Mises’s “The Anti-Capitalistic mentality”. It is a bad sign that the two destructive emotions, envy and narcissism, are now encouraged rather than discouraged. It is not just socialism that feeds off of envy and is itself ultimately destroyed by it but it is a recurring theme in religion. Long lasting religious beliefs often find a balance between the use of envy to control behaviour and other beliefs to keep envy itself under control. These two themes run through the Gospels as seen in the contrasting parables of the camel and the eye of the needle, and the differential pay of the vineyard workers.

  2. Robbie

    Prager was talking the corruption of student morality in the academy. Said “To the left, there is no right and wrong. There is only rich and poor.” So, in the academy stealing from the rich is moral, and what other people have should be constantly discussed and legislated. The Commandments warn against this human failing: thou shalt not covet.

  3. Sustainability does address envy, though in a warped kind of way. It’s okay for Al Gore to have millions, Hillary to have millions, Obama to have millions. Just not your 1% that the Obamas and others don’t like–those who are accused of not paying their fair share of taxes and live like kings (though the actual ones not paying taxes are the ones saying the rich should pay more). Sustainability addresses only those who are disliked by the leaders of the environmental movement, not the rich and privileged. It’s an interesting bending of an idea to protect those who are truly over-the-top rich from any criticism. It attacks very specific envy and insulates others against the charge.

  4. James

    There’s more to it than envy, I think. A chunk of it is just moral signaling. Since society has been rejecting objective morality for a long time now, but humans still have the innate desire to know and be moral.

    The new “objective” standard for morality must become subjective things, like feelings. Or, it can become something that appears objective, like the earth. Envy and narcissism come into play to explain the hypocrisy of arguing for sustainability, but not giving up all energy-using possession.

  5. Ray

    The leftists have turned the seven deadly sins, which were private vices, into public virtues. They believe in their intellectual and moral superiority and that is hubris.

  6. Gary

    So Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with the stone tablets in hand. He says to the people, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” The people say, “Give us the good news,” to which Moses replies, “I kept Him to ten.” “And the bad news?” “Coveting is still in.”

  7. Katie

    Who is doing all this envying? The poor and hungry are too busy being poor and hungry to give much thought to the type of car those on the next rung or two, or twenty, are driving. Or is the envy coming from those who have enough education and awareness to sense the lavish lifestyles of their economic betters?—-and who otherwise might be envied, had those below them had the wherewithal to care?

  8. There was a march against the top 1% that seemed to be based on envy. Of course, they could have been paid protesters or something similar, but there was and is envy of the top 1% who have been declared bad by the current government. A great deal of envy. Envy doesn’t mean you necessarily want to be rich when you see rich people, it can mean you want them eating out of garbage cans for the sin of having too much money and ambition. Envy can be and is used to tear the successful down. If we all fail, there’s no failure. I think that is what we see now.

  9. DAV

    Envy is it? So that’s what’s meant by being Green?

  10. Jim Fedako

    “Certainly, this is only one thread through recent trends toward collectivism.”

    No equal sign as such. But there is a thread of envy in the Green movement. Are you refuting that?

  11. If you believe class envy is a cause itself, then you admit to a Marxian point of view that is all well and fine but for that your address of the cause would only exacerbate it. If you believe it is just a perspective that can be changed, how would you change it? It is what it is. People who have less want more, and people who have more want more. The envy itself is always there, out to an imaginary horizon – for everyone. It is to be human. We are social animals, and our status among our fellow critters is important to us. The instant we conceive of something we want, we want it, and when wealth is ostentatiously displayed around us, we want that too. You can call it whatever you want, say it should go away, complain about it, but the best redress, it would seem to me, would be to make a world where every person has a fair shot at getting whatever the heck they want.

    You want pollution (for some weird reason), so you get a fair shot at that (we’ve gotten a lot, ya’ know).


  12. Katie

    Just a note—America’s “poor” are not poor in the same sense as others around he world are poor. America’s taxpayer-subsidized poor have too much money and too much leisure, which is perfect for breeding envy.

    PS, Who is “for” pollution. If you are a careful reader of this blog, you will see that our host isn’t “for” pollution.

  13. JMJ: Obviously we cannot change the mind of someone who is so uneducated, unintelligent, whatever the cause is, that he continues to write “you want pollution” like an fool over and over again. Guess that kind of behaviour is uncurable, too. (By the way, you never answered any time I asked about YOUR carbon footprint, recycling, growing your own food, composting, riding a bike to work, stewardship of the land… may I assume you are as much a hypocrite as most liberals?)

    As for your question on how to control envy, no, we can’t control it in you or any atheist because religion is the way to control it: learning self-control, compassion, etc and not “I’ll do whatever I please and you’ll approve” as we see in secular ethics.

    Katie: Good point. America’s “poor” are the elite in many third world countries. Poor is like Haiti, were they were literally mixing dirt in their food due to no food. In America, one runs out to the food bank. Your kid gets free meals at least twice a day and a back pack on weekends (I guess parents don’t feed their kids anymore). This is not poverty, not even close. Yes, there’s still envy, but it’s not due to poverty.

  14. I’m still struggling with the effort to connect envy to sustainability. Humans have a powerful competitive drives but also powerful altruistic (cooperative) drives. Insights gleaned from game theory (consider the Ultimatum Game) suggest people will prefer to punish themselves so long as another party is not unduly rewarded. For example, would you rather have 10% less income or 20% more income? Most people will choose the 20% more income. But let’s revise the question: Would you rather have 10% less income IF a 1%’er looses half their wealth, or would you rather have 20% more income if a 1%’er doubles their wealth?

    A surprising number of people will prefer to punish the 1%’er even if it results in their own punishment. Because the punishment is disproportionate. That is the dilemma.

  15. Will: Good point. I am always amazed how many women will back the idea that women earn less than men and that the government should do something to make it “fair” without ever noticing that the way things are made fair is the men earn less. Women gain nothing, but they don’t care as long as the men are made to suffer and know what the poor woman feels like. It is indeed a dilemma.

  16. Sheri fairness in society is not an unreasonable expectation to have. It becomes problematical when the goal of ‘fairness’ becomes the end in itself. Some people prefer a completely egalitarian society so long as everyone is equally poor. That’s when the idea of fairness becomes self destructive.

  17. Agreed.

    (The blog said my comment was too short! I added this to make the blog happy!)

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