Monday, April 22, 2013

Happy Earth Day! (Some Restrictions Apply)

Today was Earth Day, a holiday I generally try to avoid; such manufactured holidays always smack of obnoxious pretentiousness, unless then agenda of said fake holiday is to encourage the eating of pie. Then, I am mostly in favor of it.

Anyway, I dislike Earth Day because it encapsulates everything I hate about the environmentalist movement. Despite my radical free marketeer status, I'm not wholly against the environment; in fact, I think the few admitted failures of the free market tie in quite nicely with what environmentalists critique about it. The concept of externalities--a cost (or, technically, a benefit) that has to be borne by someone who is not the person who reaps the benefit*--pertains almost perfectly with air and water pollution. Likewise, many environmentalist causes involve things in which it is very, very difficult to set a rational price on--things such as endangered species--to the point where everyone involved needs to chill the eff out.

Still, these aren't without their problems. I am, pretty much by definition, a cruel, black-hearted economist , so I'll list exactly the reason why I really can't call myself an environmentalist:

1. Environmentalists don't like to think about trade-offs, even though everyone in the room agrees that it's the only way to make things work. No one likes to think about the fact that we're willing to value a certain number of rainforest acres plowed or dolphins mulched quantified in how much richer it will make us. Environmentalists will say that nothing--nothing--is worth losing vital acreage or even just one tuna to the sea, but that just isn't reasonable. The argument will never, ever be about eliminating anything. If we wanted to stop respiratory disease, we could stop carcinogen pollutants right now--but we would also slice our national income by about 90%. (Also, hope you like living in the third world.) We don't want to think that we're just trying to find the right line in the sand between environmentalism and money, but that is really what we are doing. And there's nothing wrong with this. We all make life-and-death trade-offs every day; you can decrease your change of dying in a car wreck effectively to zero by never leaving your house, but no one will ever suggest this is wise. So it is with the environment. To deny this, or cover it up with code words, is counterproductive.
2. The "Little Things" you do to save the Earth really don't matter. I'm not saying they are completely useless, but at this stage of the game when climate change** is on the radar only huge leaps in technology are really going to help. We need a car engine that runs off of water, not a brick in the toilet tank to cut down on a few gallons of water waste. Obviously some things help more than others, but people tend to focus on the easy, simple things that really don't impact the environment all that much. The worst part is that most people will use the small, easy things as a substitute for real action; by feeling good when you toss that bottle in the recycling bin, you have "done your part" and thus don't think twice about paying 10% less on a normal item instead of the greener one. To be fair, there are a lot of so-called "little things" that certainly might help--offhand, the idea of "smart" appliances seems like it will help--but those are just as much about saving money as they are saving the earth.
3. The "failings" of the free market are usually just a crutch with which to hang microsocialism.There is a reason why a lot of environmentalists are called "watermelons"***--green on the outside, red on the inside. Often, an environmentalist movement is really just a ploy not to necessarily save the environment (although I'm sure that is a goal as well), but more importantly to stick it to the rich guys. The failings that I mentioned on the first paragraph--externalities and all that--are valid failings, but it only explains so much. Sadly, it's then much easier to stretch those failings to cover a wide swath of complaints. I wish this was just my usual level of paranoia talking, but there are plenty of examples of poorly-implemented regulations that do little to save the Earth and more to make it more difficult to run a business. If you don't think that's on the agenda of at least some of the movement, you haven't been paying attention.

While I, myself, consider myself to be sympathetic to the environment, I know full well most environmentalists would laugh me out of their little club. I care very, very little about the small picture because I don't think it does any good--there are too many substitute behaviors that the net impact is practically invisible, and the big-ticket items are coming (but not for a while, and at great expense). I think there are plenty of perfectly reasonable solutions that are compatible for both the free market and the environment, but they require a certain level of...finesse that the government is not known for.

The Pledge: There's nothing wrong with saving the planet. Just don't be a chump about it.

*As always, I apologize to the economists out there--I realize this definition is sloppy and watered down, but y'all get the point.
**There's a part of me that things changing the focus from "global warming" to "climate change" is a sketchy way of covering up the fact that scientists still don't know everything, and that's bad for selling climate change to the world. For the record, I think climate change is a thing, but I'm not sure we know the reasons why, nor do we know all of the effects. (I don't have a lot of confidence given how often and quickly the details have changed even in the last ten years.) How this translates into what I support in public policy, I have no idea.
**Well, I do, anyway.

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