CMI Commentary: Environmentalism Defines Virtue Down

Forget courage, thrift, fidelity or industry. Generosity? Humility? Fortitude? Honesty? Those are so 19th Century. According to Master Card, today's virtue resides in being eco-conscious.

The latest in MasterCard's successful “priceless” series of ads features a young boy shadowing his father, saving the lout from committing a series of environmental atrocities – a smug little moralist saving the sinner from himself.

When Dad leaves the water running as he brushes his teeth, Junior is on hand.

“Water glass,” says the (child's) voice over, “five dollars.”

Cut to a hardware store where Dopey Dad is looking for light bulbs. Luckily, his progeny knows enough to point him to the acceptable ones.

“Energy saving bulb: four dollars.”

Now at the grocery store checkout, Lil' Billy thinks quickly to save Dad from the horror of plastic bags.

“Reusable bag: two dollars.”

And the payoff:

“Helping your dad become a better man: priceless.”

Yes, it's just a commercial – just a company trying to capitalize on the green zeitgeist to sell a credit card. And had the ad said, “Helping your dad become more environmentally friendly,” or “a better environmentalist,” or some such, it wouldn't have attracted attention. As the Culture and Media Institute has repeatedly documented, the environmental movement has targeted children, not only to indoctrinate them, but to get them to indoctrinate others – in some cases specifically telling them to nag their parents.

But “better man” is a remarkably strong phrase to use in relation to whether you turn off the tap while you brush.

So what do we know about this Dad who reacts so sheepishly to his son's corrections? MasterCard doesn't tell us much: good oral hygiene; kind of dim; easily bullied by first graders … Presumably, having brought him into the world, Dad has worked to clothe and feed the boy. He's not in prison or deadbeat or otherwise absent from the lad's life. Heck, for all we know he spends his weekends volunteering at a homeless shelter.

But because he was about to accept a plastic bag from the check out girl, he's not as good a man as he should be. Until he weighs his every mundane action for its environmental impact, he's immoral. Unless he actively seeks to reduce his carbon footprint, he's a sinner.

It's been widely noted that environmentalism is religion for our secular age. And since one of the main functions of a religion is to instruct it adherents in right and wrong, it follows that a man's goodness can now be judged according to his carbon footprint.

What's wrong with this? Nothing, if you think that six-year-olds – or Al Gore – should be the ultimate arbiters of morality. (And if you do think so, you obviously don't know any six-year-olds, or Al Gore.) Let's leave aside questions of dubious science and the political indoctrination of children. The fact is, the “green gospel” offers a value system fit for children. It's not very demanding. An extra dollar or two on recycled paper towels is a small price to pay for self-satisfaction. Polar bears way up in the arctic will never test your faith (unless you happen to see them hunt and kill their food). Whales and ice caps and glaciers won't demand your forgiveness. Go on and buy a Prius and drive with pride.

Speaking of the Prius, I read somewhere that Honda has discontinued its hybrid version of the Accord. Apparently, there's no market for a hybrid that looks like a regular gas-guzzler. Like any religion, this one has its Pharisees.

But the more serious problem with this new moral code is that if you elevate choosing the correct light bulb to a virtue, you cheapen real virtue. If you make your bathroom habits ethically meaningful, true ethics mean nothing.

Societies transmit and reinforce their values, including the character traits they deem worthy of emulation, in a variety ways: stories, legends, art, literature, customs, ceremonies. They create an atmosphere in which individuals must absorb and internalize those values.

Judeo-Christian morality was once inescapable in Western civilization. No more. Environmentalism has rushed in to fill the vacuum it left (Proving Chesteron's assertion that “When people cease to believe in God, they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.) At the same time, the degraded state of public education and the enormous influence of mass media on society have conspired so that the tenets of environmental piety are ubiquitous.

So the little scold in the ad is very much a product of his times. So were the teenagers who stormed OmahaBeach, the fathers who worked three jobs during the Depression, the men and women who ran the Underground Railroad at great personal risk, and the Christian martyrs who refused to renounce their God. It's just that their “better” was … better.

Matt Philbin is managing editor of the Culture & Media Institute.