31 July 2005

Your virtue won't save the planet.

David Wann's opinion piece in this Sunday's Denver Post is typical of the genre. It correctly points out that Peak Oil will have a profound economic impact when it hits in earnest, that water supplies are finite, that our way of life is, in short, unsustainable. But, his solutions are the typical appeals to personal virtue.

People are buying "large homes, hot tubs, computers, large-screen TVs and a fleet of must-have appliances." Your hamburger is put forth as the culprit that is costing half a year of showers in water consumption and enough gas to drive twenty miles. They consume too much fuel because "many of their friends live across the city, and it costs two or three gallons of gas to go see them." and because "they jump in the car to do a single errand, and a large percentage of their household budget is spent for the latest media gadgets and luxury vacations." Our heros are urged to "create a community garden and compost pile" out of their oversized back yard, to hold "a community picnic", and to consider "carpooling, planting trees to reduce air conditioning, and forming a cooperative team to make each house as efficient as possible." They should form "a discussion group, book club, a few carpools and a food co-op", and start putting "we" in front of "me". He "envisions cottage industries to create jobs that are a two-minute walk away" and "a micro-turbine to supply electricity to some of the houses in the neighborhood." He urges "a jointly held bank account" or a plan to "purchase the next house that's up for sale, to create a community center with shared office equipment, a library, and a guest room."

Wann is also a co-author of "Affluenza" and modern day sumptuary law proponents like him are typical among environmentalists. I consider myself an environmentalist too, but I don't think that the problem is that people are individually too selfish and wasteful.

Our nation's environmental survival does not depend on backyards converted to gardens, community cooperatives, or fewer home electronics purchases. The truth is, that trying to make a dent in the national demand for energy, or in national pollution production, by having people run fewer one trip errands or trying to make friends next door instead of across town doesn't work. Our standard of living depends for it very existence on not having cottage industries or subsistence farming, and nothing has changed to cause these economic approaches to make sense. Big factories and corporate farms have replaced cottage industries and subsistence farming precisely because they are more efficient and less resource intensive. The process of making our economy more environmentally sound is not a touchy feely grass roots process.

If you want cleaner air, you need to change emissions performance for motor vehicles in a handful of major manufacturing companies, change the fuels you use to produce electricity in big corporate utilities, and make freight rail faster so wholesalers and retailers use it in preference to more polluting and fuel hungry trucks. If you want fish with less mercury pollution, you need to find substitutes for products made with mercury at the manufacturing level - by banning production of mercury thermometers, for example. If big backyards waste water, you have to convince developers to build neighborhoods with small yards and big parks, because once the neighborhood is built, it is hard for an individual home owner to make a difference. If homes consume too much energy, it has more to do with poor insulation than having too many square feet. If you want people to be able to access office equipment or keep friends in guest rooms in their own neighborhoods and not make car trips for single errands, you need to loosen up zoning codes to permit people to open neighborhood businesses like Kinkos, convenience stores and bed and breakfasts, not form community cooperatives. And, there is nothing inherently more environmentally sound about a food co-op than there is about a corporate natural foods store like Vitamin Cottage, Wild Oats, Whole Foods or Sunflower. If it is expensive for people to commute or to visit friends across town, then maybe we need more electronic gadgets so people can keep in touch without actually getting in a car. If too many people are moving into the exurbs, maybe we need to look into eliminating hidden governmental subsidies that favor rural living over urban living, such as flaws in school funding formulas.

Environmentalism does require people to put "we" over "me" at the policy making level, so that we do not suffer a tragedy of the commons, with shared resources like air quality, water quality, and a healthy ozone layer. But, the model of a regulated economy full of large enterprises is going to get the job done better than a model of a grass roots co-operative based economy in which people voluntarily consume less for the good of the community.

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