From THE VN/VO:
I leave nearly every light on in my suburban house, even in rooms I don’t plan on being in for hours. I drive an SUV-like vehicle, and I am notorious for making a single back-and-forth trip out of everything I need to get from various stores. I use copious amounts of paper towels to clean up any spill. I have never recycled a day in my life, and I prefer plastic to paper.
Oh, and I’m an environmentalist.
Hypocritical? Not so fast. You see, I could have listed a variety of personal likes, dislikes, and characteristics of mine that are much more eco-friendly- I work from home and probably drive only 40 miles total each week, I have a compost pile in my backyard, and so on. I could then rage on about how you, too, should follow in my footsteps in a communal effort to help our environment.
Today’s environmentalists (by that I mean the past 30-ish years of the movement) practice what I call “back-filled morality.” This is where one builds specific rights and wrongs around actions they already partake in because of personal preference. My favorite is the trend of modern, young urbanites to bike rather than take cars. One-hundred percent of the time, it’s a completely personal preference first- driving a car in the city is a nightmare, its good exercise, its fun, and so forth. However, for those who bike and are of the “environmentally conscious” ilk, you’d be hard-pressed to find one that isn’t convinced that cars are wrong for everyone, and that cars are an evil we’ve leashed onto the planet.
Funny how arguments of global rights-and-wrongs always fit nicely into- and demand zero sacrifice of- the personal likings of the individual making the argument.
Americans don’t generally make sacrifices. I don’t, environmentalists don’t, no one does. It’s not that we’re selfishly corrupt and perilously greedy, as many like to think. Though many are in denial about it, we all inherently know, through centuries of inherited personal experience, that we actually have a system that figures out how to conform to both mass personal preferences and external necessities like a good environment- all without the need for much sacrifice at all. It’s called the free market.
The big, ugly, money-obsessed, take-no-prisoners free market? Well, the “free market” is a bit of a misnomer. The “market” is only a small part of the whole system. When people think of the free market, they assume it applies only to the trade of goods, services, and currency. They assume that seemingly non-economic issues like environmentalism inherently exist outside of the free “market” and must be regulated through some other system. Not true.
Take, for example, the problems in America that are slowly arising from dependence on a depleting and hostilely-controlled oil supply, and foreign oil specifically. A problem, indeed. Yet, when you look at the adoption curve of alternative systems- like hybrid and non-gasoline cars- it mirrors the beginning stages of pretty much every other culture-altering invention before it. We, as a people- with minimal regulatory interference- invented and adopted electricity in a matter of a decade. We invented, learned to use, and widely adopted the Internet in a matter of a few years.
Will hybrid cars be the same? Of course. The instant such products become cheaper and more convenient as today’s pure gasoline cars (and they will), is the instant we’ll begin to decrease- and probably someday eliminate- our reliance on oil. Anyone who worries that we won’t adopt such things is worrying about nothing (and could use a refresher course in American industrial history).
None of this is to say that adoption of environmentally friendly products in general, and alternatives to oil specifically, shouldn’t be happening a bit faster. It should. And who do we blame for the slow-down? Environmentalists blame the oil companies, along with their government lobbyists, and public relations machines. I, however, blame the environmentalists.
Pipe dreams aside, oil companies have one responsibility, and thus one need: to make a profit. Over future decades, oil companies, for the most part, couldn’t care less where this profit comes from- or even if it actually continues to come from oil itself- as long as its profit. No company that wants to be profitable has any agenda beyond pure profit. As harsh and unforgiving as it seems, this is a good thing. Only in a system where each entity has an essentially singular focus can global change happen. And, along these lines, such change can only happen with one other component: demand.
Environmentalists have spent the better part of the past 30 years attempting to force extra responsibility into the supply side of our economic culture (i.e. corporations), attempting to bypass demand through forced government regulation, and attempting to guilt the public into making sacrifices. Sometimes the result seems successful, sometimes it fails. However, in nearly every situation, the process is flawed.
Environmentalists do serve a critical role in our economy and culture- a role that is often ignored because of their general dogmatic prejudice against capitalism and the free market. That role- and the only role anyone outside the supply side of capitalism can take on successfully- is to inspire demand.
Demand is a pretty powerful thing. It may be the most powerful thing in our economic culture. Demand can’t necessarily be fully manipulated, but often latent demand- like that which certainly exists for alternatives to oil- can be inspired. Thus, environmentalists hold the responsibility to work within the system (in other words, shed the guilt trips and hope for magic, quick-fix regulation) and figure out a way to marry the public’s non-prejudicial need for cheap and convenient products with the environmentalists agenda.
Such responsibility is often shirked. It’s a lot easier (effective or not) to complain about grand conspiracies and anti-environmental agendas. However, if you know anything about economics, the (often surprising) truth is that no corporation, organization, or any other entity can avoid or silence demand. All the lobbyists in the universe cannot squelch something that people actually want. Its never happened, it never will.
So maybe in ten or fifteen years I’ll be writing a follow-up to this article on a landfill-friendly laptop, from my solar-heated house, where I park my hydrogen-fueled car. Certainly, if it makes my life easier, and is cheaper than other products, then I- like all people living in the free market- will be happy be that environmentally-friendly with my purchases. But- like all people living in the free market, including every single environmentalist- I won’t make sacrifices for it. I won’t need to.
Sacrifices, of course, are never necessary. The same economic culture which we all contribute to and take from just so happens to provide the right things, at the right time, at the right price. Any environmental problems will be lessened- or eliminated- in the process. They always are. Assuming, of course, that environmentalists are willing to take the responsibility for guiding such a demand.
View story at THE VN/VO:
Environmentalism’s perilous ignorance of the free market