Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Do You Want the Paper Pill or the Electricity Pill?

One of my pet-peeves, as any reader of this blog and many of my students will know, is what I call “bumper-sticker environmentalism”. By this I refer to the tendency for individuals to prescribe overly simplistic personal choices as public markers for being environmentally politically correct: “Drive a hybrid and heal the planet.” One of the reasons I don’t like these catchphrases is that they tend to be self-referential in a “look how noble I am” type of way. And then there’s the larger theological question as to whether the idea that the Heavens and the Earth need our “healing” isn’t putting human beings substantially above our pay-grade. But a third reason I am skeptical is because these “bumper-stickers” resort to such incredible simplifications that they ignore environmental or social costs on other dimensions. These are the so called “unintended consequences” of good intentions….an increase in the incidence of malaria after DDT is banned to saved endangered species; the presence of trace amounts of mercury in energy-saving light bulbs; the fact that looking at the retail consumption “carbon footprint” of a product may be very different than the lifecycle carbon footprint, taking into account the production, transportation and distribution of the good before it reaches the retail market and also all relevant disposal issues.

On a recent vacation, I had the opportunity to visit several public buildings such as museums, restaurants, theaters, and churches. What struck me (and maybe I have just been missing this recently) is how many of the Men’s Rooms now have both paper towel dispensers and electric hand dryers. I can recall a time when many companies put up placards saying that, in order to save the forests of the world, they were eliminating paper towel dispensers and switching to electric hand dryers. Of course, electric hand dryers run on, well, electricity, which is produced largely (in the United States) by fossil fuels with carbon emissions. So, one might expect a switch to paper alone. But I regularly saw both.... a "let's satisfy everyone type of approach."

Fair enough, but I had this weird picture of someone wedded to bumper sticker environmental slogans washing his hands at a theater with just a couple of minutes left in the intermission….the lights are blinking, and soon he will be shut-out of the second act. He’s standing there, paralyzed with indecision, trying to figure out what is better for healing the planet.

“I if I use the paper towels, then in some small way I contribute to deforestation (this is true even if these particular towels are re-cycled, because any shift in demand is going to affect the whole market). But if I use the dryer, then I’m using electricity which adds an incremental amount of use of fossil fuels, unless of course this electricity is produced by a nuclear base-load power plant or wind-power. But there’s the same general problem as with the towels; any increase in demand is going to pass through the entire grid, so even if in Manhattan they have a contract for wind power (not generated, of course, by windmills that would harm the vistas of people living on Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard, but windmills that are somewhere out in flyover country where nobody cares about the vistas, except that windmills do have an unfortunate side-effect of buzz-sawing birds ) the net effect could still be an increase in load from a gas-turbine generation facility”….. Tick Tock Tick Tock, time is running out. What will you choose? Do you want the paper pill or the electricity pill?

Adam Smith is often completely misunderstood to assert that individuals are naturally greedy or uncaring towards one another. Actually, what he’s saying in the Wealth of Nations is that because of the information-decentralized and highly interconnected world of the market, it’s virtually impossible to try to squeeze virtue through society by imposing some social benefit lens on our daily market transactions. Although he wasn’t talking about “green” consumers, I think his point pretty well applies to the example I’ve given above. From reading through the Theory of Moral Sentiments, I don’t have any doubt that Smith thought that virtuous men and women might want to consider their own preferences about final consumption and whether, for example, a 24,000 square foot mansion or gold-leaf covered ice cream are marks of prudence. But I think he would have been skeptical of our current moral fascinations about paper or plastic, organic or attractive, this fair-trade organization versus the other fair-trade organization, trees or electricity, hybrid versus plug-in. And, as a final thought, as Doug often has pointed out to me and is implicit in Adam Smith, if you purchase prudently in the market, don’t you have more resources at the end of the month that you could directly contribute to solving some of society’s problems?

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