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

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(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.”


Rudy Mueller

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.

Tarrou

"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!"

Rudy Mueller

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.

J1

"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.

Eamon

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:
http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41709.pdf
http://www.waste-management-world.com/articles/print/volume-12/issue-4/features/the-lithium-battery-recycling-challenge.html
http://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/does-hybrid-car-production-waste-offset-hybrid-benefits.htm
http://www.pacinst.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/hummer_vs_prius3.pdf

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James

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.)

Julien Couvreur

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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James

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.

Enter your name...

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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Ben Millstein

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.

Tarrou

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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Ben Millstein

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.

Tarrou

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.

James

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...

Erik

I LOVED this episode! I'm so glad to hear a conversation about "green" topics that attempts to look at the full accounting of our choices. However, I had really hoped to hear Mr. Glaeser talk about the how the rise in demand for bamboo products has in turn caused China(one of the largest suppliers of bamboo) to plow under whole swathes of land that had previously been used for food crops and plant bamboo monocultures. I bet the talking panda never mentions that.

Melissa Green

I would have appreciated and respected this podcast if Ed Glaeser had not come across so condescending. He rushes through his entire self-important shpiel without ever taking a stance on the environmental issues discussed. Glaeser is gasping for air and it is highly distracting.
Ultimately, I could not appreciated the message of this podcast due to poor delivery on Glaeser's part. I have to say, I was disappointed with this episode. All Glaeser really had to say was: “We should probably be most aware of environmental messages when they’re sold by people who have an obvious personal interest in it.” Then the audience could have received the intended message without wasting our time.

Melissa Green

I would have appreciated and respected this podcast if Ed Glaeser had not come across so condescending. He rushes through his entire self-important shpiel without ever taking a stance on the environmental issues discussed. Glaeser is gasping for air and it is highly distracting.
Ultimately, I could not appreciate the message of this podcast due to poor delivery on Glaeser's part. I have to say, I was disappointed with this episode. All Glaeser really had to say was: “We should probably be most aware of environmental messages when they’re sold by people who have an obvious personal interest in it.” Then the audience could have received the intended message without wasting our time.

Derek

I love stories that make us as consumers be more informed and aware of what's being marketed to us, much like the whole marketing effort towards "organic" food...

Though one point that I found disappointing was the statement about how "electric cars might not be as environmentally friendly", and the supporting reason being that "cheaper mode of transport could lead to more usage, therefore causing more pollution in the long run". It feels like the statement didn't keep in mind how electric cars can have energy powered by renewable resources such as solar.

No matter how fuel efficient a gas car is, you're still burning fuel and emitting CO2. If you have a nice set of solar panels on your roof, you will be driving your electric car without a drop of fuel for many years. Rather than looking at electric cars as a cheaper means of locomotive, I'd rather think of them as a means of being energy independent. Certainly it's not gonna solve all the environmental issues, but it's certainly a good step forward.

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