Why Bad Environmentalism Is Such An Easy Sell: Full Transcript

This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Why Bad Environmentalism Is Such an Easy Sell.

[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.

 

[THEME]

 

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.

 

[UNDERWRITING]

 

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.

This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Why Bad Environmentalism Is Such an Easy Sell. 

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