Thursday, August 9, 2007

Attack of the Killer Organic Tomatoes

DOG DAYS MUSINGS: Some of you may have seen a version of the following question bouncing around the internet recently:

If I want to go from Tallahassee to Tulsa, do I create more carbon pollution by flying or by driving by myself in an SUV?

It turns out that reasonable people were getting answers either way. Specifically, it is possible to argue that driving alone in an SUV is more "green friendly" than flying. The reason I didn't post to these at the time is because it was obvious that the answer depended critically upon a bunch of sensitive assumptions: kind of airplane and engine, speed of flight, number of stopovers (more take offs and landings), model of SUV, driving speed, and so forth. Nevertheless the fact the the answer is close enough to be credible, I suspect, surprises some people.

Now comes another internet story which is probably pretty much along the same line, but I just couldn't pass this one up. It turns out that at least one author argues that organic foods contribute to global warming. (Thanks to Instapundit for the tip).

Either one of these cases would be a good topic for a Mythbusters-style dispassionate test. I suspect the first debate may have been motivated by all the stories about the private jets ferrying "green" celebrities here and there. My point is that all of these supposed paradoxes are excellent examples of the economic reality of unintended effects, specifically general equilibrium systems that are often very complicated. When our political discourse degrades this debate into "sticky note" analysis of "this is green --- good" versus "this is not green --- bad", we run the risk of making bad decisions. (I suspect there are people who are willing to accept this because they perceive that the benefits of having our political consciousness raised outweigh the unintended mistakes.) When we take this same simplistic "Live Green" mindset and marry it to our theology, things become even worse. It's like that other sticky-note theology. You remember the one I'm talking about: "Healing people on the Sabbath --- Bad." We know what Jesus thought of that.

To me, much better theology and much better economics would look a lot more like a carbon tax. With a carbon tax, we wouldn't have to trivialize our Faith by getting into arguments about whether flying or driving is more Christian (or even worse, "How Would Jesus Travel?"). If these legends I've reported above are true, then costs of airline flights and organic foods will, at the end of the day, be affected more than those of SUV travel and non-organic foods. If they are false, they won't. Better still, consumers won't have to carry some lame "Christian Guide to Being Green" around with them. As the relative price of relatively carbon intensive products rises, we maximizing consumers will automatically find that we purchase fewer of those goods.

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