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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Made blue by green initiatives”

In my column for the May 23rd, 2008, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I explained why I am not taken in by ‘green’ initiatives such as buying local and driving an electric automobile. It’s better, of course, that such initiatives be voluntary rather than – as is too often the case – imposed by government. But the intellectual and economically uninformed hubris that nevertheless motivates proponents of even voluntary ‘green’ initiatives is disturbing. You can read my explanation beneath the fold.

Made blue by green initiatives

My wife, Karol, shares my deep appreciation for the creative powers of people operating in free markets as well as my skepticism of politics. She and I see very much eye to eye.

On some matters, though, we disagree — not fundamentally, but more as a matter of emphasis or, perhaps, just taste.

Karol applauds private efforts to encourage consumers to “be green.” In contrast, I wince at most of these efforts. I wince not because I’d prefer political efforts. Quite the contrary. If soccer moms across the country feel the need to “do something for the environment,” I much prefer that what they do be voluntary — such as buy reusable grocery bags — rather than that government enforce such actions. Without government force, those of us who aren’t interested in parading our green credentials are free to do our own thing. That’s a happy fact.

I wince at these efforts for two reasons. The first is identical to the reason why I wince at the thought of people voluntarily buying books that explain how to get rich quick or how to lose weight while they sleep. While I don’t wish to forcibly prevent adults from choosing to spend their money on such gimmicks, the fact remains that these things are fraudulent. Their purveyors prey on people’s gullibility.

And so it is with many of the ideas for how to “live green.” For example, consider the admonition to use ceramic cups rather than paper or Styrofoam cups. The idea is that production of paper cups causes more trees to be felled and Styrofoam cups cause more oil to be extracted. Such activities are deemed “ungreen.” But the production of ceramic cups requires intense heat — a requirement that consumes resources. And being heavier than disposable cups, ceramic cups require greater amounts of energy to be shipped to market. Finally, let’s not forget that washing ceramic cups also uses energy and water.

Now I have no idea if disposable cups are better or worse for the environment than are ceramic cups — which is my point. The complexity of our modern economy is far, far greater than most people realize. As Milton Friedman (taking his cue from his friend Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education) famously explained in his 1979 TV show “Free to Choose,” no one knows how to make even an ordinary pencil.

The production of each pencil, after all, requires knowledge of how to make chain saws (to cut down trees), extract crude oil (to power the saws and delivery trucks), find bauxite (to make the aluminum ferrule that holds the pencil’s eraser in place), mine graphite (to make the “lead”), and to do literally millions of other tasks necessary for the production of the everyday pencil. No one person or committee of persons could remotely begin to gather and process all of this knowledge. Pencils are produced because millions of people, each with his or her own special knowledge and skills, are guided by market signals to contribute to the making of pencils. Not one in a million of the people whose efforts are necessary to make pencils is even aware that one of the end results of his or her efforts will be pencils.

Given the economy’s enormous complexity, it is fraudulent for anyone to insist that, say, using ceramic cups is better for the economy than is using disposable ones (or vice versa). Likewise for many other popular “green” initiatives, such as recycling or using fluorescent light bulbs.

It pains me to see so many people gullibly adopting the latest “green” fad as if it is based on sound science and sufficient knowledge.

My second reason for wincing at even voluntary “green” initiatives is that I fear that they further foster environmentalism as a religion. And a more widely believed environmental religion threatens to morph into ever more irrational and destructive restraints upon private property and free markets.

Precisely because no one who practices the latest private “green” initiative has any way of knowing if his actions really help the environment, the habit of acting on the basis of symbolism rather than on science (or even on common sense) becomes ingrained. People become too confident that their beliefs about the consequences of their actions — too confident that their intentions — are sufficient reason to act as they do, without any felt need to check their beliefs against the facts.

There are worthwhile private green initiatives, such as driving less when the price of gasoline rises. But these worthwhile initiatives almost all are economically sound responses to changes in market prices — prices that contain information from around the globe about the objective state of the world. Acting on such knowledge is the best that we can do.