Why Bad Environmentalism Is Such an Easy Sell: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: NASA Goddard Photo and Video)

(Photo: NASA Goddard Photo and Video)

Sure, we already know it’s not easy being green. But how about selling green? Yep, pretty easy. That’s according to the Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, the star of this week’s podcast, “Why Bad Environmentalism Is Such an Easy Sell.”  (You can subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

Glaeser is an interesting scholar and a good conversationalist. You last heard from him in our podcast called “Why Cities Rock,” in which he discussed the many upsides of urban life: economic, culinary, intellectual, and environmental. (This was based on his book Triumph of the City.) His latest working paper is called “The Supply of Environmentalism” (abstract; PDF). Glaeser argues that since most of us are eager to do the right thing for the environment, we are vulnerable to marketers and politicians who offer solutions that aren’t as green as they seem:

GLAESER: So I actually do believe that almost all environmentalists are motivated by relatively benign forces and they’re trying to do good for the world. … But I do think that in the sales pitch, in the persuasion process, inevitably decision rules get simplified. Inevitably we move things down to sound bites, we move things down to simple implications. And sometimes these just mean that we get results that are less than perfect. In some cases we can get results that are completely the reverse of what we wanted.

In the podcast, you’ll hear Glaeser go through three examples: recycling, electric cars, and local development regulations.

You’ll also hear about bamboo, which has an extremely green sheen these days, and is used in construction materials, clothing and linens (let this panda tell you) and even toilet paper. But as Kathryn Fernholz of Dovetail Partners argues, bamboo isn’t really an eco-savior. The FTC, meanwhile, recently fined four national retailers for “bamboo-zling” consumers with misleading environmental claims.

Politics, of course, isn’t immune to environmental sleights of hand. Consider Al Gore and corn ethanol. Gore was for it before he was against it, and explained why during a green-energy conference: “One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president.”

And what is Ed Glaeser’s advice for cutting through the green fog? “We should probably be most aware of environmental messages when they’re sold by people who have an obvious personal interest in it.”

Audio Transcript

[MUSIC: The Civil Tones, “Oddly Enough” (from: City Stoopin’)]


Stephen J. DUBNER: Please identify yourself, name, rank, serial number, whatever version of rank and serial number you wish to convey.


Edward GLAESER: I’m Ed Glaeser, the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard where I also direct the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.


DUBNER: Okay, you’ve said that a few times before.


DUBNER: The short version is that Ed Glaeser is an economist at Harvard, and he studies a number of interesting things. But his obsession seems to be with the city. In fact we did another podcast with him a couple years ago, called “Why Cities Rock.” Glaeser looks at cities from a number of angles – how they deal with housing booms and busts, how they incubate ideas and wealth; how much cities pollute compared to suburban and rural areas. Glaeser argues that cities are in fact very green, primarily because if you live in a city you share so many resources with so many other people. So Ed Glaeser is what you might call an urban environmentalist. It is not, as you can imagine, an overcrowded field. So I was interested to see a new paper that Glaeser wrote, called “The Supply of Environmentalism.” What does he mean by that? The conversation starts here…


GLAESER: So I actually do believe that almost all environmentalists are motivated by relatively benign forces and they’re trying to do good for the world. And I do not think on net environmentalism isn’t a good force. I believe on net it is.


DUBNER: There’s a but, isn’t there? You’re just waiting for the but…


GLAESER: But I do think that in the sales pitch, in the persuasion process, inevitably decision rules get simplified. Inevitably we move things down to sound bites, we move things down to simple implications. And sometimes these just mean that we get results that are less than perfect. In some cases we can get results that are completely the reverse of what we wanted.




ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.


[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound, “No Man” (from: What Goes Around Comes Around)]


DUBNER: Today we’re talking with the economist Ed Glaeser about what he calls “the supply of environmentalism.” Now, what does that mean? Glaeser believes that most environmentalism is based on good intentions but, for a number of reasons, environmental messaging can be counterproductive. Alright, let’s get specific. What’s the greenest thing you can think of, off the top of your head? Alright, maybe walking or riding a bike instead of using something with an engine is the very greenest thing that comes to mind. What’s the second -- or third -- what’s the 19th greenest thing you can think of? Maybe it’s … bamboo!? Yeah, bamboo. Now, here’s a commercial for bamboo from an Australian retailer called Ettitude. The commercial features a talking panda and as the panda tells us, bamboo is pretty green.


ETTITUDE PANDA: ...bamboo is great for the earth because once it’s cut down, it grows back quickly, which means it is a great renewable resource. It also doesn’t need any pesticides or fertilizers to grow, and soaks up nitrates from the soil which makes for a clean and happy earth.


DUBNER: Bamboo has become a ubiquitous ingredient lately – you can buy bamboo flooring for your house, bamboo dishes and cutlery, sheets and towels made from bamboo, even deodorant and toilet paper – brand name: Bum Boosa:


BUM BOOSA: We're Bum Boosa. Yeah We're Bum Boosa. 100% tree free, and they’re safe for your whole family. Hypoallergenic and BPA free. Strictly tested for quality…


DUBNER: One reason that bamboo has become so popular is that it’s an easily renewable source and, therefore, is easy on the environment. But is it really?


Kathryn FERNHOLZ: In terms of the conversations around bamboo what’s surprising is that it seems like people really fixated on that single attribute, that it grows fast. And in some ways we should know better than that.


DUBNER: That’s Kathryn Fernholz, with Dovetail Partners. They’re an environmental think tank in Minneapolis. Dovetail published a report called “Bamboo Flooring: Environmental Silver Bullet or Faux Savior?” Just because bamboo grows fast, Fernholz says, does not make it a miracle crop.


FERNHOLZ: There are all kind so things that grow fast. Corn grows fast and we’ve heard all to the negative impacts of some types of ethanol production. So that’s what’s surprising, is with how sophisticated environmental conversations have become, too often still we just go back to single attributes and we forget to look at the whole context of how things are produced.


DUBNER: The context of bamboo production, Fernholz says, is a bit more complicated:


FERNHOLZ: Most bamboo to be economical for an export market is going to be cultivated in an intensive way. And so that generally means monoculture, it’s going to be one species, or a maybe a few different species, but all bamboo in a cultivated area most likely with intensive inputs like fertilizers and chemicals to boost that productivity.


[MUSIC: Glenn Crytzer and His Syncopators, “The Beaver Bump” (from: Harlem Mad)]


DUBNER: So what else do know about bamboo? Well, most bamboo products are imported from Asia, where increased demand can lead to deforestation and other unsustainable practices. And just because something is made from bamboo – or promoted as being made from bamboo – doesn’t necessarily make it so green. Turning all that bamboo into all those products means going through the typical manufacturing processes, which involve plenty of additives and hazardous chemicals. Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission fined four national retailers $1 million for falsely marketing fabrics made from bamboo as environmentally friendly. The FTC, in a bout of cleverness, had a warning for consumers: don’t get “bamboo-zled.” This brings us back to Ed Glaeser’s point. The fact is that it’s easy to be bamboozled – because it feels so good to be told that the things we like to do aren’t bad for the environment, for our kids and grandkids. We all want clean air and leafy forests and pristine lakes, which means there’s a lot of demand for the supply of environmentalism. Not all of which, unfortunately, is as green as it sounds. Here’s Ed Glaeser again:


GLAESER: I walk through three cases in the paper about things that have been clearly part of environmental campaigns. Two of them I think of as being less than perfect, recycling and hybrid cars, and one of which I think of as being in some cases downright counterproductive, which is local opposition to new construction, particularly in greater San Francisco, or greater California.


DUBNER: I would like to ask you to just back up now and give me a very brief thumbnail of each of those. So talk to me about the less-than-perfect outcome of recycling for instance.


GLAESER: So recycling, this is an old idea among economists, Darby is the person associated with it, the point being that what you care about is the number of trees in the world, you actually want people to use more paper rather than less, because in the long run, the demand for paper determines the stock of trees, because fundamentally this is a renewable resource, and you have to plant more trees in order to get more paper. Now, that isn’t true if the paper is being produced from first growth forests, if paper feels more like we’re fishing from a common pool that isn’t true, but that’s not actually how paper is produced in the U.S. It’s actually produced in these renewable forests. So pushing people to recycle more doesn’t necessarily do anything good in terms of forests, and indeed if you want more trees, use more paper. Now the flip side of the that, and the reason why that’s a little bit too glib is that of course there still is potential for energy savings in recycling, there still are potential other advantages from recycling, and anyway I’m just talking about paper I’m not talking about plastic or any of the other things. So I wouldn’t try to say that I’m trying to beat the band against recycling. But it is clear that many of reasons why recycling, how recycling is sold, often with this save a tree, don’t recycle, get it backwards, that actually it’s the people who are using more paper that are actually encouraging people to supply more trees. And similar to the point about vegetarianism and the number of animals. I mean, if we wanted to make sure that there were no pigs on this world, we wouldn’t start eating a lot of pigs, we would stop eating pigs.


DUBNER: Another classic recycling argument is, you know, let’s say, paper or plastic cup versus ceramic mug. And it’s held by many people that it’s somewhat close to a sin to use a disposable cup when you have ceramic one at your disposal. And yet, you have to consider the energy associated with the ceramic mug, not only making it and how long it lasts and so on, but every time you wash it, the hot water it consumes, and where that water, how that water is produced, where does the electricity come from, the detergent in the drainage, and so on, using the water with which to wash it, the time involved, and so on, versus throwing away a paper cup. So what do you know about that beyond what I just blathered and where do you stand on that?


GLAESER: So I think I’m not going to take a stance specifically on recycled cups versus not, but I know that what as economists we would tell people is to, you know, perfectly calculate the full environmental consequences of everything that you’re doing and then make the appropriate choice taking that into account. We also know that that’s an absurd thing for people to say. And part of the recycling story is that we boil things down to a sound bite, i.e. please recycle. And as a result we don’t necessarily get always the perfect outcome. So it may be that most of the time using the ceramic cup is actually the right thing to do, but there surely are cases where it’s not and we don’t have any ability to nuance because we’re following a bright-line rule.


DUBNER: And we could go on and on, electric hand dryers in a bathroom versus paper towels and probably a hundred other examples. The bottom line is I certainly don’t know. I’m guessing you don’t know, somebody probably knows if they take a lot of time to figure out each case. But your point is a larger one, yes?


GLAESER: Yes it is. It’s that because this works through this public market you inevitably get toward simple, bright-line rules, you know, some of which can be imperfect.


[MUSIC: Roberto Rodriguez, “Mambo Kitch” (from: Timba Talmud)]


DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: why electric cars might make us drive more, and why new construction – in San Francisco, for instance – is greener than you think.


GLAESER: Here is probably the area that I am both least convinced by the pure benevolence of the persuaders and most convinced that the effects are actually counterproductive from an environmental point of view.




ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.


[MUSIC: Collective Acoustics, “Toroid” (from: Edges)]


DUBNER: Ed Glaeser today is telling us today that environmental messaging can be substandard, and yet we’ll still consume it, hungrily, because we are so eager to believe it. You want me to use bamboo, a nice green leafy grass that I could practically pull out of the ground with my bare hands – instead of lumber that comes from some big, hard, barky tree that needs a chainsaw, burning gas and oil to cut it down? Sure. I’ll use the bamboo. Now obviously, we’re all susceptible to marketing messages – but just because someone says something doesn’t make it true. For example: I am a cat. I am a cat. I am a cat. Meow… Right. I am not a cat. To Ed Glaeser, one of the trickiest environmental issues of the moment concerns electric cars.


GLAESER: Now one of the things that’s interesting about cars is that it hearkens back to perhaps the greatest hit of environmental economics or environmental and energy economics, which is the Jevons Paradox. Which is Stanley Jevons’ great observation that between 1750 and the age of the new common engine and 1850, steam engines in the United Kingdom had become wildly more efficient, much better at moving things with smaller and smaller amounts of coal being burnt. Now, you might have thought that this would create a radical reduction in the use of the coal and indeed all fears that the U.K. would mine itself out would have vanished in the rise of these energy efficient engines. But of course the opposite was happening. What those more efficient engines were doing, what the age of Boulton and Watt was creating was a whole world built around the steam engine that meant that instead of using less coal we were using more and more coal because of the behavioral response. And I think one of the reason the Jevons is so popular is that he really focuses on what economists care about most, which is the behavioral response to changes in conditions. So just think about... the Jevons Paradox is closely tied to how we think about café standards for cars or other forms of efficiency.


DUBNER: So you’re implying here, let’s say, that if, let’s say we could convert our internal combustion engine fleet right now of however many hundreds of millions of vehicles that is with a few hybrids and electrics thrown in around the edges to an entirely electric fleet tomorrow, let’s say we could push a magic switch, your warning is that because the electric car would seem to be so environmentally friendly it will produce an over supply of…Well people would drive a whole lot more. Yes? That’s the fear?


GLAESER: Well, it doesn’t even have to do with because it seems environmentally friendly, it’s because it’s so much cheaper. So typically, let’s apply Jevons to normal mile per gallon gas powered car. So typically what you need is for what’s called the rebound effect, which is the amount of extra miles per gallon increase with respect to a reduction in cost of driving. What you need to have the direct effect to reduce the mileage of cars, not be overwhelmed by the behavioral blowback, is you need that elasticity to be less than one, meaning that you can’t have too big of a behavioral response. Typically the estimates of this rebound effect are that it’s substantially less than one, short run effects, are you know, maybe as little as a quarter. Large run, long-run effects can be a little bit more than a half. Studies differ but, I think most people think that as cars have become more efficient we have generally had a reduction in gas mileage. Although it is certainly true that over the past 30 years, we’ve take a lot of our more fuel efficient engines and then put them in heavier and heavier cars or cars with more and more horsepower. So we have certainly undone a fair amount of it. Now what’s interesting about electric cars is that they, because they use a totally different technology, they both reduce the cost of driving a mile and also they change the environmental footprint. They reduce both, both of which is a good thing, but they reduce the cost per mile by a lot, substantially more than they reduce the environmental footprint. So, you know, I walk through some estimates, but it can be the cost per mile of driving something like a Tesla is a quarter to a fifth of the cost per mile, and this is of course the marginal cost, it’s not taking into account the upfront cost of buying a car, but a quarter to a fifth of the marginal cost of driving a gas guzzling car. Now, by comparison, the carbon emissions related to driving is a much less substantial reduction. It is a substantial reduction, but much less than that. So you’re pushing so strongly on the cost that it’s much easier to imagine that an all electric fleet could have a big enough rebound effect to offset it. Now I’m not sure I believe that, but it is something actually to worry about in terms of the impact of this.


[MUSIC: Carson Henley, “Leave This Mess” (from: 100 Hours)]


DUBNER: Your third example in the paper has to do with development regulations. Can you talk us through that?


GLAESER: Yes, so here is probably the area in which I both am least convinced by the pure benevolence of the persuaders and most convinced that the effects are actually counterproductive from an environmental point of view. So the point is that there are certain parts of the country like San Francisco that are intrinsically incredibly green. If you just think about the climate of San Francisco, it requires very little heating in the winter and very little cooling in the summer. And parts of the older areas, the core dense areas are also endowed with excellent public transit. And as a result, building more housing there is about the greenest spot in the country in which you could do so. Now, you would think that environmentalists who were interested in minimizing America’s carbon footprint would therefore be beating the band to increase the amount of production around the San Francisco Bay, because indeed it’s just that production that will ensure that we live in an area that is environmentally sensitive rather than in an area that is environmentally difficult. But of course the opposite is the case. For 45 years, San Francisco has been a center for environmental activism that was focused on restricting building in greater San Francisco and it became increasingly difficult to build in San Francisco. The Supreme Court of California also helped with the friends of Mammoth Case, which required an environmental impact review for any large scale development in California. And those environmental impact reviews are intrinsically flawed because what they do is they ask what the local environmental impact is of the project, but not the global environmental impact of not building the project. Because every time you say no to a project in greater San Francisco it means that you’re saying yes to a project somewhere else, right? I mean the rate of household formation in the U.S. doesn’t get to be determined in San Francisco, they just gets to be determined whether it happens there. So if you turn off building in Berkeley, it turns on outside of Houston. It turns on outside of Las Vegas. And in order to ask yourself whether or not this local environmentalism is good environmentalism you have compare the carbon emissions associated with building in Houston versus building in San Francisco. And I think once you start doing that, the oppositions of local building in coastal California look like they have it backwards.


DUBNER: So that is fascinating and it makes sense. On the other hand, we can’t really, on that kind of environmental issue we can’t profess to be that surprised because this is basic NIMBY-ism, isn’t it. I don’t want…Yes of course I’m an environmentalist unless my environmentalism requires me to do something right here that affects me in a poor way. Now, some people are incredibly selfless and altruistic, but probably most of us kind of constantly juggle. We want what’s good for the world, but we especially want what’s good for ourselves and our families. So can you really lump in let’s say that kind of anti-development fervor with the same kind of broad environmental messaging that’s maybe more generally about, generally about energy, or generally about recycling, or generally about the advantages of one kind of energy versus another?


GLAESER: Well I think you’re exactly right in that it’s precisely because it is motivated by fairly personal issues rather than a generic altruism that it has been more likely to not be to the environmental good. I think that’s exactly right. In terms of lumping it together I think all of this stuff is on a continuum. So I don’t think of this as being radically different. I think if you ask my neighbors who are opposing development for allegedly environmental reasons, they would think that they are thinking globally and acting locally and part of exactly the same crusade as…and in some sense the job of an economist is to create something of a hypocrisy tax, right, to say that you can oppose the development but you can’t say you’re doing it for the good of the environment. You have to at least admit that what you’re trying to do is make your commute a little bit easier or to not have to deal with the construction on your street corner. You’re not allowed to pretend that you’re doing good for the world by doing it.


DUBNER: Gosh, that’s a great way of putting it, because I think that’s a struggle that most right-minded people have, and let’s assume for a moment that 100 percent of us are right-minded. We want what’s good for ourselves and our families, and the ones we love. And we want to punish everyone else not very much, right? Let’s assume that’s the case. And yet I guess what I’m taking from hearing you talk is that the message of environmentalism is too often the bright-line, or the black versus white that doesn’t allow for that kind of contradiction to live within us.


GLAESER: I think that’s probably right, and that we should probably be most aware of environmental messages when they’re sold by people who have an obvious personal interest in it.


[MUSIC: Nasimiyu, “Dandelions” (from: Rules Aren’t Real)]


DUBNER: That makes sense, doesn’t it? Follow the money – and follow the incentives. Like earlier, when we were talking about bamboo – the anti-bamboo sentiment came from Dovetail Partners, which is, quote, (quoting itself) “a trusted source of environmental information.” Their arguments against bamboo sound perfectly legitimate – but, we should note that among Dovetail Partners’ many sponsors are the American Wood Council, the Forest Landowners Association – the kind of folks who might not be crazy about all that Asian bamboo being turned into floorboards and toilet paper. And if you think the incentives get murky in marketing – just look at how environmental ideas are handled in politics. You remember when ethanol made from corn was thought to be the next great green energy breakthrough? Ethanol turned out to be not as green as promised – and, I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know, some of the politicians who subsidized it had their own incentives. Al Gore, back when he was Vice President, was a big supporter of ethanol subsidies for corn farmers. But a few years ago, at an energy conference in Athens, Gore admitted that it had been a bad policy. So why’d he support it? “One of the reasons I made that mistake,” he said, “is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president."  Hey, give the many two points for being honest, at least, right? Now if we can only get that talking panda to come clean about bamboo.

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  1. Rudy Mueller says:

    As a new California voter and a self-styled smart environmentalist, I was initially buoyed by the presence of a “clean water bond” on the annual state Proposition ballot in the late 1990’s. I voted for it. Who could be against “clean water”? However, I saw a similar bond issue on nearly every annual ballot for the following 10-15 years. And every year the next new clean water bond would pass, increasing the debt load for a state that was wrestling with chronic budget problems. It seems we shut off our critical faculties when faced with phrases like clean water and environmental crisis. Watching that dynamic has turned me into a much more critical “cost-benefit” environmentalist today.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0
    • Tarrou says:

      “What’s the money for?”

      “A six figure salary for the union heads at the water company.”

      “Cool! We’ll call it the Clean Water initiative!”

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 0
      • Rudy Mueller says:

        Your suspicions actually played out – the Santa Clara county water board where I lived had some scandals about high pay for execs and outrageous perks – although I am not sure the money came directly from the bonds. I can say though that the fine print in the propositions always called for more research into clean water. I don’t know if we need much more research – just tough choices to be made, like how to fund shoring up the aged Sacramento delta levy system.

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  2. J1 says:

    “So I actually do believe that almost all environmentalists are motivated by relatively benign forces and they’re trying to do good for the world”

    All religions see themselves that way.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 25 Thumb down 17
    • Linch says:

      So do most people and philosophies, period. Good people like to think they’re doing good. Bad people like to think they’re going good. So?

      Your statement conveys no useful information whatsoever, other than an attempt to sound clever.

      Thumb up 8 Thumb down 5
  3. Eamon says:

    I think another great example with hybrid cars is the externalized environmental costs of producing the batteries. First, the batteries require lots of rare earth metals like nickel, copper, and lithium, the mining and smelting of which has a terrible impact on the local environment. Many of these have been imported from China, but Chile is the worldwide leader in lithium supply. Processed into a powder, the lithium is then sent to a second facility (some of which are in the US, others in Asia) to be made into spools of thin sheets of metal before being sent to Japan to be made into the actual batteries. Then the finished product is sent back to the US. Before you even step into your Prius, it’s gone around the world. If you assume a lifespan of 160,000 miles, the Prius still comes out ahead as far as emissions compared to a conventional car, but there are two things wrong with this. First, many conventional cars can be used well past 160,000 miles whereas batteries have a finite lifespan. Second, how recyclable is the car once it’s done? In fact, the lithium can be recycled, but at a cost 5 times greater than just getting new lithium. There is currently no main recycling infrastructure in the world for recycling Li-Ion car batteries.

    This is a heated debate, and I’m sure on some points I’m wrong, but my point is that Toyota is a company that is trying to sell cars. If marketing a car as “green” helps them do that, they will.

    Some sources for the curious:

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 5
    • James says:

      Batteries do have a finite lifespan. So does everything else.

      My 2000 Insight hybrid currently has about 175K miles on it, and the batteries are still working just fine. This is by no means unusual for hybrids.

      Maybe the reason there is currently no battery recyling infrastructure for hybrid car batteries (either Lion or NiMH, which is more common) is that not enough have failed to justify recycling. (Even when a hybrid battery pack fails, it’s usually just one bad cell out of hundreds. The pack can be rebuilt by replacing that one cell, and used for many more miles.)

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    • Hybrid Dan says:

      In my experience of owning about 9 cars (including the wife’s) over 25 years (in the harsh midwest), when many of them approach or pass 100K miles and 8 years old, they often cost more to fix than they are worth. They become parts cars in a junkyard, or if they run, beaters which are so less efficient, and less safe than newer cars. They lose many of the benefits (gas mileage, “clean” emissions) they had when newer. I found an exception. I now drive a 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid with 72k miles (bought used this year), which I expect to drive for many more years and expect well over 120k miles on the initial batteries. Getting 10mpg higher than the non-hybrid Highlander. Saves me over $100/month and saves the earth over 25 gallons of burnt fuel each month.

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      • James says:

        I have to disagree. A Honda or Toyota (and perhaps other makes) really isn’t broken in until it hits 100K miles. In fact, since the 1980s, I’ve owned only one car (the above Honda Insight) that had less than 100K miles when I bought it.

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    • TexCIS says:

      Electric cars are basically “coal-powered” cars, since coal is the single biggest producer of electricity in this country. Is coal cleaner than gasoline?

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  4. Julien Couvreur says:

    I understand that bright line rules are imperfect. I would be curious to have your perspective on another bright line rule: whatever is cheaper is more environmentally friendly.

    Sure, that rule has flaws too.
    Maybe coal energy is cheaper, but it emits more particles of dust in the air (pollution), which producers don’t account for since they are not liable for the effect on others.
    Maybe landfills are relatively cheaper than they should since they are often subsidized by government (but then again they are relatively more expensive since government limits the supply of landfill).
    The question is which bright line approximates environmental concerns the best.
    Given that the price of something accounts for the price of the factors of production (to lower the price you generally have to reduce the resources that you use, or find a better use of less valuable resources).
    So if you can produce something that people want for less waste, less energy, less human labor, less desirable resources, then that efficiency accounts for environmental concerns. Then we can start using criminal law against polluters, stop subsidizing landfills and energy, to arrive at a closer approximation of the optimal solution.

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  5. James says:

    Regarding the misapplication of Jevon’s Paradox to automobiles, it should be obvious – even to economists – that the limiting factor in driving is not the cost of fuel (which is absurdly cheap, really), but the amount time one is willing to spend driving.

    Certainly there are many vehicle owners out there who could cut their fuel costs by half, three quarters, or even more, just by choosing to drive a different vehicle. (And often save considerable money on the purchase price, too.) Yet how many people actually buy fuel efficient cars in order to save money on fuel? Almost none: purchases are driven by environmentalism, geopolitics, a preference for smaller cars, and other non-cost factors.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Exactly what I was going to write: the marginal financial cost of driving an extra mile might be only pennies—pennies that I won’t ever notice, since I already don’t notice the 20¢ in fuel that I’m currently paying to drive that mile—but the marginal time cost of driving an extra mile, especially during rush hour, is substantial to me.

      Those pennies would matter to some people, including my parents, who had far more time than money. And it’s also true that if the cost of fuel dropped, then we might see major changes to shipping goods. But for my own personal transportation use, it’s not likely to have any significant effect: I’ll still drive to the same couple of places as always, I’ll still take the bus when I don’t want to hassle with parking, and I’ll still pay $6 for shipping rather than spending half an hour (and about $2.40 in fuel) to drive six miles to the store, find the item, pay for it, and drive home again.

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    • Derek says:

      Agreed. For the past two years my driving cost is reduced by 80%, but I don’t recall driving one extra mile. After work I wish to drive straight home, not to drive around the country because it’s cheap. Perhaps this might affect the commercial vehicles but certainly not for consumers.

      Additionally, the comment about how environmental impact is not 1/5 (not the same reduction as cost) takes the assumption that electricity comes from coal. Install solar and you’ve completely tipped the scale. Most electric car owners installed solar because the panels pay for themselves in 6 years. It’s a no brainer outside of the obvious environmental impact.

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  6. Ben Millstein says:

    I do not buy that paper or pig argument. There are first growth forests being plowed under, and more pigs is no ones goal. There are better materials to use for paper and more forests as environments rather than farms are better for habitat for more animals. More quality of life is the goal.

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    • Tarrou says:

      Well, check the data. Less than 1% of the world’s paper supply comes from wild growth trees. There are old growth forests being plowed under, or burned outright, but not generally to make paper. It’s to make farms for poor people in areas without much in the way of economic opportunity. The questions you must always ask yourself is “compared to what?” and “what is the actual result?”. As to the pigs, more pigs aren’t anyone’s goal except for environmentalists, who are currently blocking a wild pig hunting season designed to eradicate the problem in my state. The DNR can’t control the population, the farmers are having their crops destroyed, the homeowners their yards wrecked, we have one of the highest percentage of hunters in the nation, and we could severely reduce the number of wild pigs at a profit to the state, but the greens don’t like hunters, so guess what? No dice. As an aside, the chinese might want more pigs, they have a government-run “Strategic Pork Reserve”.

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  7. Ben Millstein says:

    The benefits of NIMBY are that often that sentiment is a clue like the proverbial canary in a coal mine. The residents of San Francisco may also be the first people to prioritize population reduction, for selfish reasons as well as any others.

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  8. Tarrou says:

    Environmentalism makes a lot more sense when you think of it not as an ideology aimed at lowering the impact of humans on the natural world, but as a religion, the Church of Anti-Capitalism. In the intellectual discredit of marxism, it is the primary outlet for the luddite, unthinking opposition to technological progress and basic human improvement.

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    • James says:

      It should be noted, though, that really successful capitalists tend to use a good share of their profits to buy rural retreats, which they then keep in a more-or-less “natural” state. This is by no means a new trend: Roman magnates did it, wealthy Britons & French raised it to an art form in the 1700s…

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      • Tarrou says:

        This is true, because there is personal utility in unspoiled nature. The rich have always tried to maintain their own private domains. Even the poor can appreciate a beautiful vista, though they can often not afford it these days. This has nothing to do with Environmentalists as a movement. Most environmentalists wouldn’t know what the hell to do in the actual wild. They pick their battles based on which groups they most dislike, or which animals are the cutest. It’s puerile bullshit these days, not the pragmatic stewardship of a Roosevelt. Edward Abbey was the last environmentalist with a clue.

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      • James says:

        “Most environmentalists wouldn’t know what the hell to do in the actual wild.”

        I think you are basing your ideas of environmentalists on a small (but vocal, alas) segment who might better be described as “watermelons”: that is, green on the outside, red on the inside. They’re by no means representative of the majority, who do find considerable utility in nature, do know what to do out in the actual wild (in my case, far better than in a city :-)), and include quite a few capitalists in the ranks.

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