The economics of environmentalism

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  I met up with a good friend of mine this past weekend at a local dive bar. As the liquor loosened his tongue, he took a moment to complain about the wealthy elites he works for. Or as he put it, “those rich f*cks”.

 My friend works for a non-profit, environmental group. The major contributors, all of the board of directors, and most of his coworkers are all wealthy. His new boss wants to focus on gifts for donations, such as tote bags that you can bring to the grocery store, rather than specific environmental causes.

 This non-profit environmental group is a microcosm of what is wrong with the environmental movement today. Environmentalism is following down the same path to irrelevancy that labor unions traveled when they made the decision that 2% raises mattered and political movements didn’t.

The economics of denial

 The first thing to get over is the idea that you are doing anything for the environment by buying a certain product. You aren’t. You certainly aren’t doing anything for the environment by purchasing an automobile, no matter what it is. Polar bears are not going to want to hug you because you drive a new hybrid. It’s a useless exercise to make stupid people feel better about themselves while continuing to be part of the consumer culture that is destroying the planet.

  As author Paul R. Ehrlich points out in his book, One with Nineveh, half of all the energy ever involved in a car occurs in its production. Thus if you trade in a working SUV to buy a new hybrid, you are actually damaging the environment, not helping it.

  If you actually wanted to do something for the environment, park you car and start riding a bicycle to work.

“Cars cannot do anything good for the environment except less damage than others.”

 – Consumer Ombudsman official Bente Øverli

 The next most obvious problem with the environmental movement today is scale. Take, for instance, saving water in California during a drought. You are encouraged to take shorter showers and not always flush the toilet. It’s a pathetic exercise in futility.

  In California, agriculture uses 85 percent of our water. All of our toilets together don’t add up to a fraction of the amount of water used by farms that grow taxpayer-subsidized cotton and rice in the desert! It’s a similar story in Arizona.

 If we wanted to save water and money then we should stop sending our tax dollars to large agribusinesses who grow totally inappropriate crops in the desert. You don’t do it by not flushing your toilet.

 Of course the biggest problem of scale is thinking that our consumer actions are going to make a big impact. This is nothing more than a manufactured, pointless guilt. It’s a distraction by big business that keeps people from actually doing something constructive.

 You aren’t a big polluter, and your composting isn’t going to save the world. For instance, if you want to stop mountain-top removal mining, you don’t do it by taking tote bags to grocery stores. You do it by pushing lawmakers to outlaw mountain-top removal mining!

Why is that?

 It isn’t a coincidence that the mainstream environmental movement is wasting its time endorsing products to sell to consumers that make us feel good by giving us the false impression that we are doing something for the environment.

  Just look at my friend’s environmental agency. The people who run it got rich from the current system. It’s against their personal interest to endorse policies that would endanger this system. Instead we get incrementalism in a rapidly decaying global environment.

 That’s not to say that all environmental groups are like this. Some of them are truly grassroots movements and are working toward specific policy goals. But even those groups endorse these useless, guilt-sustaining gestures. Almost none of them address the larger economic change that would actually have tangible environmental benefits.

 That larger economic picture I will address in my next essay, The Economics of Ecology.

26 comments

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    • gjohnsit on September 16, 2010 at 5:52 am
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    I had to cut this in two when I realized just how large it was going to get. I also didn’t want people to get distracted by my criticism of some environmental groups, and the larger economic message.

    • melvin on September 16, 2010 at 7:20 am

    You preach it.

    • Edger on September 16, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    They were free, and though they sometimes smell, they don’t pollute.

    Since the human race doesn’t seem to be able to get it together on using our heads, maybe if we all got together and used our feet, we wouldn’t have so many problems to think about?

    • RiaD on September 16, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    thank you

    ♥~

    • melvin on September 16, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    One of the worst trends – along with overreliance on whiz bang websites – is tugging the heartstrings instead of making the hard arguments. Case in point: Defenders of Wildlife (actually one of my favorite groups) has long been involved in a program of eradicating the introduced european beaver from Patagonia, where they have caused endless damage. It is a necessary and admirable project. But DoW won’t front page it, because it might offend the warm and fuzzy crowd that beavers are killed in the process.

    To save the forest you sometimes have to kill trees. In the long run – jesus, aren’t we talking about the long run? – what good does it do to encourage the “aw, so cute” crowd at the expense of facing facts?

  1. you export the entire electronics industry to places where they can throw the gallium arsenide residue out the back door of the wafer fab but first you declare those places exempt from Bernie Madoff Carbon trading limits.

    Then you promote 32,000 percent markup petrochemical based big pharma drugs and subsidized Monsanto GM frankenfoods.

  2. There may well be a problem with the linkage we make between anthropogenic global warming and the destruction of the environment as if they are one and the same.

    There is no doubt in my mind that humans are responsible for the vast reduction in plant and animal species and that we need to do everything possible to preserve these species and restore those that are on the verge of extinction.  If tigers go extinct, it will be an incredible loss to the planet.  And they are just one species in thousands that face extinction.  And I believe that the pollution of our air, our water and our land are clearly our fault.

    On the other hand I believe there is very good science, which is being totally ignored, that points to the conclusion that man is not responsible for the recent rise in global temperature.  I used to think that an Inconvenient Truth was the most important documentary ever made.  It could still be, but for entirely the wrong reason.  

    My conversion occurred not by reading right wing political horseshit, but by being pointed to articles written by astrophysicists outside the United States, primarily in Russia and Scandinavia, countries that would clearly be winners in global warming, rather than losers.  These physicists (solar physicists) are predicting another mini-ice age in the next thirty to fifty years.  Their theories are taken so seriously that CERN (where Europe’s Hadron super collider is) is conducting a major experiment to see if these theories may indeed explain the hot twentieth century and perhaps an upcoming mini-ice age, which could well be far worse for humanity than global warming.  We should know CERN’s results shortly.

    These scientists believe that the global warming of the last century and the possible upcoming mini-ice age is due to the magnetic variation of the sun.  The sun is a giant magnet as well as a thermonuclear furnace.  While the sun’s thermonuclear output is very constant, the sun’s magnetic output fluxuates greatly.  These scientists believe that during high magnetic output the earth heats up and when the sun’s magnetic output wanes the earth cools.  The twentieth century produced the most magnetic sun in the last thousand years and possibly the last eight thousand years. But for the last five years, the sun’s magnetic output has really dropped off and we may be entering a phase of cooling.  It will of course take awhile for the earth to lose the heat it has amassed from the twentieth century.

    Since astrophysicists are some of the brightest people on earth, I have taken a wait and see attitude about the validity of anthropogenic global warming.  As a progressive, I fear we will be caught with our britches down if they turn out to be right and we will be the laughingstock of the scientific world.

    We should all learn about the Maunder Minimum (no sunspots during the last mini-ice age and sunspots are indicative of a highly magnetic sun) and a couple of scientists named Henrik Svensmark and Jasper Kirkby (at CERN).

    In a nutshell the theory is this.  The sun’s magnetic field protects us from cosmic radiation.  Cosmic radiation causes an increase in clouds, which cools the earth.  When the magnetic field is strong we have less cosmic radiation and fewer clouds and vice versa.  It is a theory that warrants our attention.  To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “It’s the sun, stupid.”

    Imagine the economics of making the mistake that humans have caused this global warming and we need to do something about it.

  3. True environmentalism is very economic based and very political … just not “capitalistic” as we know it today.

    Think of what a truly environmental society would look like – agrarian, small self-sufficient farms (or small farm communities).

    The end of suburbia… possibly the end of urbanism, period.

    No mass transportation of food, goods, or any other product (including medicines).

    The least impact on the environment possible.

    Political parties are not going to embrace that … nor are feel good environmental groups. However, there are people that live this way.

    And when the big crude pump runs dry … we all will. It’s just a matter of how many species we will have eliminated beforehand and whether we can survive in an agrarian society without them.

  4. in a world gone mad with messaging and marketing. Reality bites. The show stopper in our times is that all these groups and agents for change are dealing with the system and it’s centralized power that considers profit and it’s entrenched markets as our only avenue to ‘change’. It’s a dilemma faced by all institutional groups from the unions to the Sierra Club. My husband burst out laughing the other day when he noticed the hand tool weeder was made by the Sierra Club. Restoring our environment one dandelion pop at a time.  

    I have for years donated to Osprig which started out as a radical lobbying group for environmental issues. They are pretty toothless as they need to make money to have any influence and they are now by-partisan as they must seek favor from the crooks of both parties who have no intention of placing the reality of global warming over their entrenched owners profits.  The economics of ecology cannot work when all avenues to power require buying into our centralized capitalistic economy who’s only interest is making money off the current system.            

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