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The Consequences of Being Green

The actor Ed Begley Jr. has a widely-circulated OpEd piece touting his eco-friendly activities, featuring a proud announcement that his exercise on his stationary bicycle generates the electricity he uses to toast two pieces of bread.

Now those two pieces give him 200 calories, but he burns at least 100 calories on the bike. So half of his eco-friendly exercise is lost because he needs to obtain additional food from elsewhere to maintain his weight — food whose growth and distribution have environmental consequences too, as does the manufacture of his bicycle.

This illustrates the general equilibrium difficulties of so many pro-environmental activities about which the rich and famous boast.

Saving the environment in one market generates consequences in others. Perhaps the best illustration is the misguided effort to generate ethanol from corn by subsidizing farmers to switch to corn production. Fine for gasoline users, and fine in reducing environmental damage from gasoline; but corn uses lots of water (environmental depletion) and, moreover, the subsidies have helped fuel the spurt of inflation in food prices worldwide.

There should be a rule: before helping the environment in one market, we should be required to think through the impacts on other markets.