Feeling Good, Not Doing Good
Reading John Tierney’s recent ‘The Perverse Panic over Plastic’ has me riled up, muttering and laughing.
It’s definitely and exorbitantly fuelling my priors: environmentalists are not particularly praise-worthy people. Their ideas, actions and indignant proclamations are usually counterproductive and should be pursued, if at all, only with great caution.
Darn, sometimes I even doubt that they are well-meaning, these little greenies, but that would take me too far down a conspiratory rabbit hole I would rather avoid.
Tierney’s long-read in the latest issue of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal reminds me of Mike Munger’s excellent piece at AIER from August last year — and his many writings at Econlog and elsewhere about recycling (titles don’t get better than “Think Globally, Act Irrationally”).
To an economist, Messrs Tierney and Munger deliver standard, yawn-producing trade-off arguments carefully packaged in well-made containers, wrapped in well-supported arguments. To horrified members of the public and indignant environmentalists, their words are incendiary heresy. How dare you?!
The argument is simple: we shouldn’t bother about plastic waste if plastic isn’t a big deal. We shouldn’t muck about with minor things like banning plastic bags if plastic bags are not to blame for some actual harm (newsflash: they’re not). We should definitely not recycle plastic if doing so is more expensive and causes more environmental harm than not doing so — i.e., just placing them in landfills or burning them.
Easy enough — who could object?
Well, if your green worldview is constructed on the basis of a religious devotion to all things green and a strict biblical separation between good and evil, then no: we cannot allow any plastic waste. Should plastic waste nevertheless emerge, we must recycle it, no matter the economic or environmental cost. We must see the errors of our ways and repent, no matter what good it does.
For how bad are these truly convenient little bags of plastic? Not very, it turns out. Almost none of the plastic consumed in the West ends up in the ocean, iconically suffocating turtles and destroying the pristine view of the Pacific.
Rather, the plastic that enrages us so stem from poor countries’ inability to manage waste. Of course — what did you expect?! These countries have much more important things to worry about than what happens to their minor plastic waste. Letting them get rich will take care of that problem, as our higher standards of living have been the prime reason we cleaned up our immediate environment.
Doesn’t matter: we need to absolve ourselves from our use of plastic, even though the medicine (ban one-time use of plastics and bags at the grocery store) is entirely separate from the symptoms (plastic waste in the ocean). Instead: get reusable organic cotton tote bags whose environmental impact dwarfs those of plastic bags. Tierney writes:
“Paper bags and reusable tote bags require more water to manufacture and more energy to produce and transport, which means a bigger carbon footprint. To compensate for that bigger initial footprint of a paper bag, according to the United Kingdom’s environmental agency, you’d have to reuse it at least four times, which virtually no one does. The typical paper grocery bag is used just once (and takes up 12 times more landfill space than a plastic one).
People do reuse tote bags, but not as often as they plan to. One survey found that consumers forget to bring the bags to the supermarket nearly half the time. To offset the initial carbon footprint of a cotton tote bag, you’d have to use it 173 times, but the typical tote is used just 15 times, so the net effect is about nine times more carbon emissions than a thin plastic bag.”
“the net effect of banning plastic grocery bags is more global warming.”
Tierney, ‘The Perverse Panic over Plastic’
This style of reasoning is unthinkable to the short-sighted and righteous activist. Things are either good or bad, noble or evil. They cannot fathom that permanently increasing the population of Costa Rican-born turtles by around 15 animals is not an environmental ‘good’ when the European and American volunteers required to run the place emitted 10 ton CO2 equivalents by simply flying over there. Minor good for the local ecosystem, horrendous for the CO2-fuelled climate.
Activists, capable of high-level human reasoning in other areas of their lives, seem entirely innocent of any training in the subtle art of trade-offs and consistency. They cannot grasp that the break-even point for using plastic replacement products — like bamboo toothbrushes, cotton tote bags or metal straws — over their original plastic items are tens, hundreds or even thousand times.
Like all top-down planners, they cannot grasp that interventions in complex human systems usually have unintended consequences, consequences that entirely undermine their well-meaning intent.
The acidity of Tierney’s words is well-placed:
“politicians and environmentalists have other ideas. They’re doubling down on their mistakes by banning more plastic products and demanding alternatives that are more expensive, less convenient, and worse for the environment. Even experts familiar with the facts succumb to magical thinking. Yes, they acknowledge, we shouldn’t be exporting our plastic waste to Asia, but the solution is to recycle it at home. And yes, that’s impractical today, but everything will change after we create a “circular economy,” which merely requires a transformation of society. Guided by wise central planners, manufacturers will redesign their products and retool their factories so that everything can be reused or recycled, and consumers will painstakingly sort everything into just the right recycling bin, and we will all live happily ever after in a world with “zero waste.””
“With her half-dozen regal residences, Queen Elizabeth II has one of the world’s largest carbon footprints, but now that she has banned plastic bottles and straws, she can share the first Queen Elizabeth’s dismay at her subjects’ “inordinate excess.” No matter how much fuel politicians and environmentalists burn on their flights to international climate conferences, they can still feel virtuous as they issue their edicts to grocery shoppers.”
Tierney, ‘The Perverse Panic over Plastic’
Am I too harsh? Why do I repeatedly hate on environmentalists so much? And so viciously?
Well, one reason is that they’re the biggest hypocrites around — a fact that wouldn’t hurt the eyes of their observes so much if they hadn’t portrayed their righteous cause as apocalyptically crucial and themselves as faithfully doing Gaia’s bidding.
We can name countless examples: development agencies pushing some useless renewable goals agenda onto poor people who don’t realize the graveness of climate change apocalyptic nature, yet all the while wasting financial and environmental resources on cars, comfortable housing and transatlantic flights; the St Gretas of the world, lambasting the rest of us for ruining the planet, yet creating and generating much more than her fair share.
Another reason is that environmentalists, together with the post-modernists, the social justice warriors, the moral and biological relativists, are undermining all that made humanity great: science to figure out the workings of the universe; facts to separate what is from what isn’t; reason to resolve problems given the constraints of our natural world.
But queer theorists and environmentalists — in all fairness, only the loudest and most ludicrously convinced ones — no longer believe in facts, science or reason. There is no objective truth and so anything goes; reason is biased and oppressive; and science is nothing but a power game between struggling factions.
Given the existence of even a handful of those people (and believe me, there are more than that!) the question isn’t why I so viciously denounce them, but why not more of us do. They would be the laughing stock of our times, the royal fools of our world, had they not wielded so much legislative and moralistic power. For evidence, look no further than plastic ban legislations, renewable energy subsidies and flight shaming.
Reason, rationality, science and facts implore us to take climate change seriously:
- Yes, it’s happening.
- No, we don’t understand exactly the mechanisms behind it.
- No, most predictions and models are vastly overstating realistic outcomes.
- And no, almost all projections of their economic impact (i.e. how changes in nature alters our actual lives and standards of living) are vastly overstated.
Sure, climate change is real and serious. But it’s not a big deal. And our use of plastic bags at the grocer’s is not the problem.