Wednesday, September 24, 2008

An Ounce of Prevention . . .

From the Guardian, no less:

 People who believe they have the greenest lifestyles can be seen as some of the main culprits behind global warming, says a team of researchers, who claim that many ideas about sustainable living are a myth.
. . .

 Stewart Barr, of Exeter University, who led the research, said: "Green living is largely something of a myth. There is this middle class environmentalism where being green is part of the desired image. But another part of the desired image is to fly off skiing twice a year. And the carbon savings they make by not driving their kids to school will be obliterated by the pollution from their flights."

 Some people even said they deserved such flights as a reward for their green efforts, he added.

 . . .

 Questioned on their heavy use of flying, one respondent said: "I recycle 100% of what I can, there's not one piece of paper goes in my bin, so that makes me feel less guilty about flying as much as I do."


  1. So is not the best policy to tax carbon emissions at their source? Of course this is a long way of saying make electricity more expensive, which in turn will make everything else more expensive, and depress economic activity. The other option is to try to get people to use less energy, but, in the end, the only systematic way is to raise the price. Tough choice, huh?

  2. This is what government is for.

    An illustration:

    A few years ago, at dinner with some friends, I confessed to feeling a little guilty about my daily $3 (now $4) stop at Starbucks, when we have so many pressing social needs and so many people in this country who could use such a sum.

    My friend said, in effect, that it is government's job to provide for a rational distribution of resources: rational in the sense that everyone has his basic needs met, and then beyond that those who want more should be allowed to go get it --legally, of course.

    The problem with our government is the first part: everyone's "basic needs" are not being met, even as some of the same people have non-basic items supplied to them because it benefits the economy in the short-term to do so. That is, we have lots of people who have big-screen tvs but no health insurance. These are not necessarily stupid or lazy people: it's just that the big-screen tv is literally thrown at us, with every sort of inducement to take it home, while health insurance cannot be had for many of these people at any reasonable price.

    Peter Singer would say (does say) that, once you have enough to eat, any more is immoral, if there is someone else who does not have enough to eat. But individual actors are prevented by lots of circumstances from an efficiently redistributive role. Government is much less constrained.

    So, the "greens" who fly to the ski resort are, indeed, in some sense hypocritical. But their remedy, as individuals is (1) to stop skiing --the airplane will fly anyway, of course--, or (2) to stop worrying about their carbon footprint altogether. Either choice will eliminate the hypocrisy, but neither will accomplish anything more.

  3. This speaks to the two types of 'investors' involved in government. The reactive and the progressive. I wrote an early post on this concept here

  4. tony, I ask this in all seriousness, and, indeed, when I was younger, I would agonize about it: Can anyone, no matter how frugal and socially-devoted, live a just life according to this standard if he continues to live anywhere in the United States, or even the West, rather than move to a third-world country and help with vaccines, food, education, water, etc.? I'm not being sarcastic. It is a serious question if merely benefitting from vast inequalities leads to injustice.

  5. cato, of course your question goes to the heart of the matter; and it virtually answers itself: no, one cannot, by that standard, live a "just life" in the US, or much of the West. The US is of course by far the pace-setter, in that we are not only very rich (by world standards) but very wasteful, and much of our comsumption manifestly fails to make our lives better.

    So what is to be done? Well, we could certainly do better: dispense with so much of the wasteful use of energy, such as by heating outdoor spaces in winter (outside restaurants, etc), purposelessly idling trucks and buses for hours, elevating highways and expressways and spread-out suburbs over mass transit and sensible urban density; curtail our obsession with manicured grass everywhere; in general, make more sensible and even parsimonious use of the resources we now use so profligately.

    But, in the end, we are rich: through the luck of the draw, geographically and in terms of natural resources; and by the genius of the Founders who gave us the political tools that matched our continental situation and allowed us to develop an ethos of tolerance and self-reliance. Of course any of us could go on.

    There is an ethical strain, sometimes derived from religious beliefs but not necessarily so, that says we owe it to the rest of the world to reach out and help those less fortunate in one or more of these advantages. I think that is the best we can do, short of, as you suggest, going to Africa and sitting in the dirt.

    I could wish that our government would adopt the ethical approach that so many citizens say they believe, rather than regarding, as it seems to do, the rest of the world as a resource to be exploited so that we here can be even more advantaged.


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