Friday, September 01, 2006

The problem with environmentalists

The problem with many environmentalists (or perhaps I should say instead "the environmental movement") is the same problem with all ideologues/idealists, I think. Specifically, people and organizations can let themselves get blinded by what is "right" to the degree that they take self-defeating or ineffective approaches towards achieving their goals, and are often hostile to the constituency that they most need to make happy (i.e., industry and "the polluters"). But it's not that industry hates the environment, it's that there are legitimate reasons that we burn fossil fuels, legitimate reasons that we create the pressure on the environment that we create. It's not that these activities are inherently bad, it's that we need to recognize their cost and do what we can to mitigate them.

I like to consider myself an environmentalist, at least to the degree that I like unspoiled spaces, I hate to see habitat destroyed, etc. But I'm human, and like any human, I also want a nice life. I drive a car even when I could take alternatives because it's more convenient to do so. I live in a larger house than we probably need. Heck, I fly airplanes for fun, which burns a lot of gas. Do I feel guilty about this? Yeah, a little, I guess, but I think "cut back, don't do these things" is a non-starter of a solution. Asking people to scale back their lifestyle (or aspirations) simply is not a winning strategy, it doesn't mesh with human nature. Heck, in a more extreme example, consider places like Haiti: massive environmental destruction there for firewood, but it doesn't exactly work to tell people not to cut down the trees. They need to feed themselves and cook food. As I mentioned in my earlier posting on I-933, all economic decisions are ultimately personal - given the choice between a concrete immediate personal benefit vs. an abstract "greater good" benefit, people will inevitably choose the former. The environmental movement would do well to recognize that and harness it, rather than fight it.

The problem with being green these days is that it does require personal sacrifice. For example, I recently installed solar panels at my house - capable of generating 1.6kW of electricity at peak (i.e., noon on a sunny cool day). I'm thrilled to be able to do this, but this is also something that won't pay back for 30-60 years, depending on what happens with the local price of electricity, and that's even after the various tax breaks/rebates and energy purchase credits (I get paid more for this electricity by my utility than I pay to buy electricity from the utility). I did this math even before I installed the unit, so my eyes were open - I did this because I wanted to, but the high capital cost and the long payback involved mean that this is not something you could expect most rational people to do. The economics just don't pencil out.

So what should the environmental movement be focusing on? I think there are a few winning strategies.

Efficiency rather than Conservation This may be a semantic distinction, but I think it is critical. "Conservation" is about sacrifice - do less, use less, consume less. The message behind it is "temper your expectations, restrain your lifestyle." It's not something that people will rally around - it's explicitly about sacrifice. "Efficiency," on the other hand, is all about getting more out of what you do or doing the same things but consuming less in the process (rather than changing what you do). That's a benefit people can understand and even rally around because it saves money.

Compete on the merits, not just on the green My favorite example here is Tesla Motors, a new car company in California that is building an all-electric sports car. I have no idea how well these guys will do, but I think they're doing a bunch of things right, the most important of which is that they recognize that what they're building will be a hard sell for many scenarios. So instead of trying to get people to shell out extra money for a greener car that has all sorts of negative tradeoffs (there's that "sacrifice" thing again), they are targetting a market (sports cars) where the car is actually a good sell on its own, ignoring the fact that it's green. (And heck, getting someone to buy a Telsa instead of a Porsche will certainly save more emissions than getting a Civic driver to upgrade to a Hybrid Civic, so it's actually a good green strategy too.) If they succeed, people will buy this car because it's fun to drive and a good sports car, not because it's green. But being green will be a wonderful side effect.

Highlight negative externalities and make them internal As I said before, people make their decisions in a personal and immediate way. Things like global warming are just too abstract, distant, and long-term to truly impact the decision of whether to drive down to the supermarket for an ingredient or just make something different for dinner. But part of the reason for this is that the cost of carbon emissions aren't reflected in what we pay. At the macro level, things like cap and trade standards harness the market and make these externalities internal, which is a good thing. At the micro level, selective and careful use of taxes/fees/funds or other ways to make the economic tradeoff immediate and personal are strategies that embrace human nature rather than fight it. Two examples that I think have worked very well in this regard are deposits on bottles (makes the cost of littering, or more accurately the benefit of not littering, tangible) and recycling programs like here in the Seattle area where we recycling has become so easy (no sorting, lots of stuff accepted, big bin for recycling and small bin for trash) that throwing something away is almost more effort than recycling it.

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