Friday, May 06, 2011

Environmentalists hate progress, right?

I keep seeing posts by folks (usually, but not always, on the far right) portraying all environmentalists as extremists who want us to effectively go back to living in caves in the name of reducing carbon footprint, and who are otherwise opposed to freedom and economic growth. In fact, some of the rhetoric here comes right out and says that it's about "control," such as Penn & Teller's episode of "Bullshit" where they "debunk" recycling, in which they declare - without any evidence - that control is in fact the real motive behind getting people to recycle. I'll leave my problems with this particular P&T episode for another day, but I think I need to stand up for environmentalists.

I recall a number of years ago hearing a conservative friend of mine talk about how when environmentalists see a suburb he sees wealth, better lives for people, freedom, etc., but environmentalists just see negatives: sprawl, degraded habitat, etc.

Who is right? Well, of course the answer is "both." Nothing is free; upsides like greater wealth and economic growth come with costs. You can focus on whichever you like, you can decide the where you believe the balance between the two lies, but it is naive to pretend that either upside or downside doesn't exist.

Environmentalists indeed tend to focus on the downsides of growth, and focusing on the downsides of course never makes anybody popular.

But let's use an economic analogy. At most businesses, there are two ways to increase profits: increase sales or lower the cost for each sale (thus increasing the margin for each sale). These are, of course, not mutually exclusive - in fact, they are often self-reinforcing. WalMart, for example, has a laser focus on lowering costs, which allows them to offer lower prices, which helps them to increase sales. And at a successful company like WalMart, I should point out, nobody who points out a way to lower costs gets accused of being opposed to increased sales.

Of course, businesses focus on those costs for which there is an economic signal to which they can respond - i.e., it is usually something that can be represented on the balance sheet or income statement.

Environmentalists are the cost-watchers for the stuff that doesn't have those direct impact on the financial statements. This doesn't mean they aren't costs, just that reducing the impact of these costs doesn't improve the bottom line, so the economic signal to reduce those costs is not nearly as strong, and thus it often requires other forms of pressure, such as that provided by environmental organizations.

I don't mean to imply that companies like WalMart don't respond to environmental costs - in fact, large companies such as WalMart, Coca-Cola, etc., have been leaders over the past decade in recognizing the need to make their practices sustainable, to lessen the impact of their operations on the planet. And they should be commended for this.

And I also don't mean to imply that there aren't extremist or naively idealistic environmentalists who truly want to reduce freedoms and/or economic growth in the name of saving the planet (or "control", if you are prone to conspiracy theories). Earth Liberation Front comes to mind here. Thankfully, these represent a tiny fraction of environmentalists and are viewed by the greater environmental movement the way the majority of Caucasians view the white supremacy movement - i.e., with great disdain.

But it is irresponsible to paint all environmentalists with a broad "extremist" brush when they fill an important role as the cost-watchers for our ecosystem.

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