Why Bad Environmentalism Is Such an Easy Sell (Ep. 143)
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.”