Roger Marolt: Roger This | AspenTimes.com

Roger Marolt: Roger This

Roger Marolt
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Don’t you hate yourself for being skeptical about people just trying to save the planet by buying “green”? I mean, what’s really wrong with wearing $185 tennies soled with pieces of shredded truck-tire retreads collected from the sides of highways by self-employed poets on sabbatical in Day-Glo orange hunters’ vests smiling as you speed past late for work?

Maybe it’s because the weird design of the shoes makes them so obviously environmentally friendly that you’d like to strangle the wearer with their own all-natural hemp belt. Whatever, you don’t trust them, you don’t know why, and it fills you with regret and sorrow for the bitterly skeptical person that you have become since it started getting so hot around here.

Well, hate yourself no more. It turns out that your instincts may be right. A new study indicates that people who buy green might be bigger liars and cheats than the rest of us. In a report published in the April 2010 issue of Psychological Science, titled “Do Green Products Make Us Better People?”, researchers Mazar and Zhong concluded that “people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products than after purchasing conventional products.”

(Disclosure: I recently bought a Toyota Prius so, based on the conclusion above, you might think I’m lying about this report. But, I swear the report is real and that I bought the hybrid only to save money on gas, not the planet. If I believed a gallon of gasoline was ever going to be under a buck again and negatively amortizing ARMs were still available, I would have used the Prius money to buy a fat-tired dune buggy with a V-8 and make a downpayment on a Moab condo near the fragile desert ecosystem. [Which, ironically, is a lie because I actually love the desert and dislike dune buggies, but I thought what I said was funny so I left it in the column, all of which lends credence to the supposition that buying green made me lie. Huh …])

As the report suggests, “people tend to be strongly motivated to engage in prosocial and ethical behaviors if their moral self is threatened by a recent transgression; [conversely] they are least likely to scrutinize the moral implications of their behaviors and to regulate their behaviors right after their moral self has experienced a boost … This implies that virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviors.” In other words, if you miss church on Sunday morning, you might eat granola with plain yogurt instead of bacon for breakfast to make up for it. If, on the other hand, you write a letter to grandmother on acid-free recycled paper, you might then feel entitled to illegally downloading a few songs to your iPod.

The study cited similar works by Monin and Miller (2001), finding that previous gender-egalitarian acts licensed subsequent gender-discriminatory behavior, while Sachdeva, Iliev and Medlin (2009), found that reminding people of their humanitarian traits actually reduced their charitable giving.

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It’s called “building moral capital” and it’s kind of like putting money in the bank. After saving up brownie points, you get to spend them on sins. It’s doing bad on a layaway plan.

Now, you regular readers (yes, I know who you are and thanks for lunch last Wednesday) believe you know where I’m going with this. The question you think is running through my mind is whether the lying and cheating that follow a green purchase grow in proportion to the cost of that purchase. And, of course, that would make this column all about Aspen Skiing Co. with its launching of the hot-potato, billion-dollar, million-square-foot, Leeds-certified Base Village disaster and the city of Aspen with their overexposed Canary Initiative. It would appear that each has banked a ton of moral capital with these huge green purchases. However, it is not my intention to travel down a path of paragraphs to explore those implications. All I will say is “watch out,” and move on.

More to my aim, I wonder about the next generation of Aspenites: the people we are attracting here now. No, I’m not worried that selling this place as ultra green will set off a crime spree of stolen hotel towels and ignored parking tickets. Although it might, my concern is broader.

The study on green consumption is an example of how moral capital is created and used/abused. I am afraid that lately we are heaping loads of moral capital at our visitors’ feet, much of it counterfeit. If Outside Magazine came up with a list of The Top Ten Places to Get Your Butt Kissed, the only question would be which towns would take the next nine spots. We constantly tell our visitors how generous, smart, special and incredible they are (when in fact they are just normal people with lots of money). On top of that, now we’re filling them with notions that simply coming to Aspen makes them planet-saving super heroes.

Aspen has always been full of economic capital. Now, visitors’ accounts are overflowing with moral capital, as well. Can we suppose, then, that huge amounts of moral and economic capital in the same hands can purchase licenses to do just about anything? Judging by what has happened here over the past decade, I would say “yes.”

This really might have been a better place when we had our own values and people who came here expected to have to adjust to them, rather than the other way around. We proudly rejected the way they did things in the cities and suburbs. We discounted the value of accumulation. We shunned showing off, except in skiing, of course.

Back then we had a name for people who came to town and tried to change it. It was “turkey,” and as benign as it sounds by today’s rap standards it carried weight. We applied it liberally. It was a four-letter word. Best of all, it destroyed counterfeit moral capital like the V.I.P. section up front ruins a rock concert.