My love/hate relationship with the environmental movement

I have a love/hate relationship with the environmental movement. Well, 'hate' is a bit strong - it's more of a love/less love relationship.

Love, because I agree with their ends. Less love, because I object to their means: The environmental movement tends to be regressive rather than progressive. By 'regressive', I mean that both public and private environmental organizations focus excessively on conservation as a way to stave off disaster. The unquestioned premise is that saving the planet requires hard sacrifice: Our showers should be shorter, our homes should be colder and our driving should be rarer. But are our options really so constrained?

One problem with framing the debate as a choice between creature comforts and a healthy planet is that it misallocates resources. Time and money that could have been spent on innovation is instead spent on conservation awareness. The assumption is that today’s technologies will be tomorrow’s technologies, so the best way to protect the environment is to use less. But technological progress is difficult to predict, as the personal computer and Internet revolution have shown. It’s this unpredictability that should make us question the assumption that the Western lifestyle is unsustainable, now and forever. What is not possible with today’s technologies may be possible with tomorrow’s innovations.

The environmental movement doesn’t entirely ignore progressive fixes. Some organizations lobby in support of R&D to try to discover new technologies. But the effort often falls short of what is needed. The same tired fixes are advocated (or at least, focused on in media campaigns): Replacing coal and oil fuels with expensive solar and wind power or replacing incandescent lighting with toxic CFL bulbs, to give two of the most popular examples. The serious shortcomings of these technologies are often attributed to if-onlys: If only we devoted more time, money and attention to these technologies, they would be superior alternatives. I don't disagree that these technologies could revolutionize sustainability; I just think we should be hesitant about placing all our bets on a few currently-unpromising technologies.

Framing the debate as a choice between comfort and sustainability also tunes people out. Life is more enjoyable for those who can enjoy our modern creature comforts such as cars, hot showers and air conditioners. Someone who uses these conveniences receives a direct benefit in terms of quality of life. By contrast, a person who sacrifices these amenities may enjoy an attenuated benefit years from now, if at all: Your neighbors may free-ride on your efforts or the measures may not go far enough. The result is that pleas for voluntary sacrifice fall on deaf ears: The short-term view wins out because the long-term benefit is unclear. Consequently, it's unsurprising that environmental groups have tried to make conservation measures mandatory.

Environmental organizations lobby the government to force people to use less. Unfortunately, these mandatory measures often disproportionately affect the poor. One example is support for a tax on driving. The problem with a driving tax is that the cost is most heavily borne by the less-affluent. Driving taxes punish people with little disposable income for whom driving is not a luxury but a prerequisite for work. Another example is support for Green building standards. The issue with such standards is that they raise the upfront costs of homes. Even if these costs are recouped in the long-term, the house is out of reach for families who can’t pay the upfront premium. Other conservation measures that fall hard on the poor are requirements for paperless offices, biofuels, utility renewable-energy minima, etc.

In short, I question whether conservation is the best way to achieve environmental protection. A better solution may be to mobilize resources to discover eco-friendly technologies that will allow us to enjoy our creature comforts.


annick said...
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annick said...

Thought provoking. I agree with you, though I am not sure what alternative you are suggesting.

Further, I think we need to get used to the idea that home-owning and car-driving are unrealistic expectations. If everyone in the world expected to own a home and a bar in their lifetime, we would be fucked pretty quickly.

On a happier note, I have a new blog!


Eva said...

Thanks for your comment! Glad to have you back on the blogosphere!

As for alternatives to focusing on conservation: The environmental movement could raise money to donate to promising research groups. There's a dire need for funding in many research circles.

Also, why do you say home-owning and car-driving are unrealistic expectations? Not half a century ago, the idea that everyday citizens would own computers seemed ridiculous.

digitally404 said...

I think the best effort that environmentalists can do is communicate the problems with this world (via excellent documentaries such as Home project). Knowledge is power, and the more that people realize what is going on not just in their own backyards, but around the world, and the more they realize that the power to change lies not in others (such as environmentalist groups), but in themselves, then maybe we can progress further economically without leaving behind our morality and responsibility to do good.

Basically, we just need more environmentalist-converts, so that the term environmentalist disappears (since the majority would become one), and instead there will exist a minority of referred to as "anti-greens", "envirophobes", "tree-hater", or "resource-hog".