Archives for environment



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

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. Read More »



How Politicians Plug Electric Cars

A new study by Bradley W. Lane, Natalie Messer-Betts, Devin Hartmann, Sanya Carley, Rachel M. Krause, and John D. Graham on why governments promote electric vehicles finds that the environmental benefits of the vehicles have little to do with politicians’ motives for supporting the industry. Perhaps not surprisingly, “Government Promotion of the Electric Car: Risk Management or Industrial Policy?” (gated) finds that the economic benefits of the industry are the primary motivator for most governments. From the press release:

Contrary to common belief, many of the world’s most powerful nations promote the manufacture and sale of electric vehicles primarily for reasons of economic development – notably job creation – not because of their potential to improve the environment through decreased air pollution and oil consumption.

This is among the main findings of a study by researchers at the Indiana University Bloomington School of Public and Environmental (SPEA) and University of Kansas that analyzed policies related to electric vehicles (EVs) in California, China, the European Union, France, Germany, and the United States – political jurisdictions with significant automotive industries and markets for EVs.

“Billions of dollars are being invested despite doubts that some express about the viability of electricity as a propulsion system,” said John D. Graham, SPEA dean and co-author of the study. “The objective of many of these national and sub-national governments is to establish a significant position – or even dominance – in the global marketplace for these emerging, innovative new technologies.”



A Car that Gets 262 MPG

Volkswagen has designed it, it’s called the XL1:

The XL1 represents the car as blue-ribbon science fair project. But unlike other megacars, which are built to maximize speed and power, this one, more than ten years and upward of a billion dollars in the designing, contains not one centimeter of wasted space or poundage. The engineers eliminated power steering because it would have added 10 kilograms. For maximum lightness, the core of its body and chassis is comprised of a one-piece molded carbon-fiber monocoque. The magnesium wheels get wrapped in custom-light Michelin rubber. The windows lower with hand cranks. There’s no radio — the sound system wraps through the Garmin GPS — and no place to plug in your smartphone, because Bluetooth is lighter.



Fighting Poachers From the Lab

Wildlife activists have a new method for fighting Africa’s increasingly bold elephant poachers.  Historically, scientists and governments have struggled to determine whether a piece of ivory was poached illegally or was obtained before the 1989 international ban on ivory trading, which has left some African governments with enormous stockpiles of ivory to manage and protect.  But a team of scientists recently determined that it’s possible to use the amount of radiocarbon in an ivory tusk to determine what year the animal died — and, by extension, whether the ivory was illegally poached.  

“The amount of radiocarbon in the atmosphere nearly doubled during nuclear weapons tests from 1952 to 1962, which steadily dropped after tests were restricted to underground. This has been dubbed ‘the bomb-curve,’” explains a BBC article on the study.  The resulting significant variations in atmospheric radiocarbon allow for highly accurate dating.  Scientists also hope that the technique will help shed light on poaching hotspots.  Kevin Uno, the study’s lead author, told the BBC that the technique “would dovetail very nicely with DNA testing which tells you the region of origin, but not the date.”



A Better Way to Think About Sustainability

In a recent TED talk for TED2013, design consultant Leyla Acaroglu tackles some persistent sustainability myths and advocates a new way of thinking about sustainability. From the TED blog:

Acaroglu wants you to think beyond choosing a material for your grocery tote. Instead, she encourages us to think about the entire life of a finished product, to think hard about the net impact a product has on the environment. This is life-cycle thinking, not just whether a product can be recycled, but all the parts of its existence: material extraction, manufacturing, packaging and transportation, product use, and end of life.

Electric tea kettles, for example, are an unlikely drain on the environment:

In the UK, 97 percent of households have an electric tea kettle, and 65 percent of tea drinkers admit to overfilling their kettles, boiling way more water than they need for a cuppa. One day of extra energy use from these kettles is enough to light all the streetlights in London for a night. What we need, Acaroglu says, is not better materials for the tea kettle, but a behavior-changing kettle that helps you boil just what you need.



The Best “Green” Hotel Message I’ve Ever Seen

I’m always suspicious of companies who tout how environmentally friendly they are, when being green happens to coincide with cost savings for the firm.  The best example is the ubiquitous message you see in hotel rooms asking the guest, in the spirit of the environment, not to have the sheets and towels washed during your visit.  I have a hard time believing that if the situation were reversed – that the green answer was quite costly – the hotels would be such tree huggers.  (For the record, I don’t care at all whether my sheets and towels get washed, so I cooperate.)

At a hotel in China, I finally found a “green” message that I found compelling: Read More »



Who Controls the Switch on a Geoengineering Machine?

Most discussions about geoengineering start out with the tricky scientific issues but eventually get to the even trickier issue of governance. As we wrote in SuperFreakonomics:

As of this writing, there is no regulatory framework to prohibit anyone — a government, a private institution, even an individual — from putting sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere. (If there were, many of the world’s nearly eight thousand coal-burning electricity units would be in a lot of trouble.) Still, [Nathan] Myhrvold admits that “it would freak people out” if someone unilaterally built the thing.

Read More »



You Eat What You Are

Season 3, Episode 2

Americans are in the midst of a food paradox: we have access to more and better and cheaper food than ever before but at the same time, we are surrounded by junk food and a rise in obesity and heart disease.  In this hour-long episode of Freakonomics Radio, host Stephen Dubner talks about our massive but balky food network with economist Tyler Cowen, who argues that agribusiness and commercialization are not nearly the villains that your foodie friends might have you think. We also hear from food author/philosopher Michael Pollan, who weighs in on a number of food topics and urges, along with chef Alice Waters, a renewed appreciation for the American farmer.   Read More »