Prediction fail

Blame it on Star Trek?


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.