Thursday, April 22, 2010

Save the Earth! Some Other Day.

Today is Earth Day, an event I'm not exactly 100% on board with. I have plenty of issues with the modern environmental movement, mostly that is does a poor job of cost/benefit analysis. It's difficult for people to take your proposals seriously when the "cost" of not doing something is "the world ends." There are practical and useful tools to accomplish true environmental reform, but most activists opt for "The Day After"-style apocolpyse scenarios and dress up like sea turtles when they protest.

What I specifically don't like about Earth Day is that it allows people to feel good about doing something to save the earth, when in actuality the actions they take today will have no impact at all, or at least so little impact to make Earth Day a parody of itself.

This substitution effect, to me, is actually harmful to the planet. If people take actions that let them feel better about how they are handling the earth, they are less likely to take those steps that would have a genuine impact.

For example, take recycling. Recycling is green-neutral; it neither hurts nor helps the environment. When you recycle, you effectively change the supply of the good you are recycling. This will, in turn, change the market price. Most likely the result will be a reduction in price, which will cause individuals and companies to use more of it, sending the production of the good back to where it was. In most cases, the amount produced will be roughly the same as before; the recycled portion of the industry will simply be folded into the new market price. 

[Note: I fully realize that there are exceptions to this, especially for goods where the cost of extraction and the cost of recycling are close to identical or, conversely, far, far apart. This doesn't change the fundamental point, which is that recycling changes the market price, and the market reacts to it in a way that is green-neutral.]

Note that I didn't say recycling is bad for the environment--it simply doesn't hurt or help. But if people recycle, they feel like they're doing something good, and it gives them license to, say, drive an SUV.

I am of the belief that the changes to the environment that will have the most lasting impact won't have a lot to do with what we as individuals do; it will be in laboratories and universities, developing new technologies. Not that we certainly shouldn't alter our behavior, or not legislate any protection laws--there has been lots of genuine good in the last four decades--but we're getting to the point of diminishing returns. We've tackled the easy problems; the remaining problems are harder, the actions people take have much less impact, and the issues are going to require giant leaps in technology to fix.

And that's what I don't like about Earth Day. People are going to hear and do a lot of things today, very few of which will actually help the environment. But at least everyone will feel good about themselves, which I think is the entire point in the first place.

No comments:

Post a Comment