Saturday, September 10, 2011

Taking on the environmentalist’s ultimate conundrum: why bother?

As efforts to slow climate change continue to stall, there’s a growing sentiment that it’s not worth even making the effort. I get this from a lot of people when I tell them I do silly things like recycle, use public transit, try to find reuse things that would otherwise be trash, etc. Don’t you know we’re totally screwed? The earth’s gonna heat up, New York’s gonna be six feet underwater, you think any of that stuff you do really makes a difference?

I usually expect this sort of thing from climate deniers annoyed that somebody else actually cares about something, but this morning I was treated to a healthy dose of this particular cynicism in a New York Times Op-ed by an Environmental Defense Fund economist. Of course he’s not a climate denier, much the opposite, but as the title “Going Green but Getting Nowhere” suggests, he’s adamant that only government actions like cap-and-trade or carbon taxes can make a difference.

So why bother recycling or riding your bike to the store? Because we all want to do something, anything. Call it “action bias.” But, sadly, individual action does not work. It distracts us from the need for collective action, and it doesn’t add up to enough.

As a person surrounded by various forms of cynicism, I understand the appeal of this sort of doomsday dismissal of a sweeping set of alternatives. It just happens that fundamentally and viscerally disagree with this vision.

Liberal society has for years come from the other extreme of what Gernot Wagner describes – I’m talking about the culture of activism and protest in which people wave signs, flood streets and shout slogans about the need for climate action and then get back into their SUVs, go back to eating their factory-farmed meat, and return to making wasteful use of coal-fired power in their homes. This is the sort of culture that turns us off to Middle America, that makes environmentalists look like whining cry-babies who want to yell and scream at the oil industry while insisting it fill our gas tanks for $2 a gallon – and without accepting that oil makes our lives a hell of a lot easier.

One person’s individual behavior change may not save a lot of emissions, since most people (including me) are not willing to halt travel, take cold showers in December and leave my air conditioning off in the swelter of summer. But if we’re going go to demand collective action, we have to walk the talk. Wagner tries to acknowledge this at the tail end of the letter with an utterly self-defeating recommendation that we should keep doing what we’re doing, but stop thinking it actually matters.

I think Wagner is also fundamentally overlooking the multiplier effect of behavior change. People look at you funny when you tell them you do things differently to save energy, they may laugh, they may poke fun. But I’m convinced people of all walks of like are more impressed when they see behavior changes than when they got a hot-air sermon about what car they should drive, what food they should eat and what home appliances they should use.

This article also displays what I consider a common liberal folly that all environment and sustainability issues can be boiled down to climate. Climate change is indeed the scariest long term environmental issue we face, but many of our biggest and most pressing problems – mercury contamination of water sheds, silting up of rivers, fertilizer and pesticide accumulation in fresh water, overflowing landfills, respiratory illnesses caused by vehicle emissions – simply cannot be lumped into the climate basket. Cities that have banned plastic bags have notably reduced both waste and plastic contamination of rivers. That matters. People who want to avoid toxins have joined community agriculture programs that create employment and provide healthy food. That matters.

The fundamental paradox here is that collective action is always made up of individual actions – think the “Groupon Effect,” to use a clichéd phrase. The remedies he’s calling for – government regulations to increase the price of emitting carbon – continue to fail precisely because our country does not want them, or our country is easily convinced into believing it does not want them by political demagogues. The only way to change that situation is to win over the hearts and the minds of the people – in this case America’s voters – who can make that change.

What if people thought more about where their electricity came from? What if people know what a kilowatt hour is? What if people really thought about the fact that those little cable boxes sitting on TVs use more power each year than the state of Maryland? Yes, it’s hard to get people to change their minds, but I’m convinced that seeing their neighbors lower their power bills is a pretty good start – and no, it’s not a distraction. The real distraction is pretending America is going to wake up one morning, do an about face and approve a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade plan for greenhouse emissions.

He makes some good points here, especially about people improving their understanding of economics and about free markets actually taking into account the cost of climate change. The truth is I don’t like criticizing people from behind the veil of anonymity, but that’s the only safe way I can maintain this venue. So maybe five years ago I would have cut out your letter and stuck it up on my wall. These days I feel like I’m done with this particular brand of self-satisfied cynicism and am going to continue trying to do something, even if the policy experts think I’m wasting my time.


  1. I'll cut this true story down to the bare bones for brevity's sake.

    1) We bought and installed a solar hot water system
    2) Neighbour scoffed
    3) Few months later, I show neighbour my electricity bill.
    4) Neighbour, fairly smart with numbers, asked me how much the solar system cost. I told him.
    5) Two weeks later, neighbour installs same system.

    the end

  2. Amazing how actually doing something has an effect! I'm still convinced its better than waiting for utopia to suddenly arrive. Kudos to you (and your neighbor).