How Trendy Environmentalism is Harming the Planet
By Todd Myers
Todd Myers, a Seattle-based author and leading expert on free-market environmental policy, will be a keynote speaker at the PT-sponsored Parking Industry Exhibition (PIE) March 18-21 in Chicago. Editor.
“‘Green’ is a trend, and people go with trends. … I don’t think people know the real facts.” These words of a green consumer, reported in The New York Times in late 2010, echo what we see everywhere these days: Environmentalism has become trendy, and green fashion is all the rage.
From plaques on the sides of “green” buildings to bright-green reusable grocery bags and hybrid cars, the evidence is everywhere. People like to publicly proclaim their concern for the planet, politicians prominently highlight their latest green proposals, and business owners promote environmentally friendly products – while each seeks to reap social and financial rewards in the process.
Lost in the rise of these so-called eco-fads is an honest assessment of whether these actions are actually helping the planet, or just making us feel better about ourselves.
Witness Washington state’s requirement that new schools meet “green” standards. Last year, the Legislature’s auditing agency found that most green schools use more energy than non-green schools.
Consider the record of corn-based ethanol. It took years after it was acknowledged that ethanol created more air pollution, was less energy efficient than gasoline and may have contributed to food shortages in developing countries, for Congress to end the subsidies.
And while that small step was positive, a wide range of mandates and subsidies still exist for biofuels that have the same problem.
For example, after proudly proclaiming a commitment to reduce carbon emissions, Seattle officials admitted carbon emissions there are increasing faster than the national average.
Across the country, local officials require buildings to add accommodation for technologies that have yet to prove themselves. In California, the state promised in 2002 to create a network of 200 hydrogen-filling stations to accommodate hydrogen-powered vehicles. By the deadline of 2010, fewer than 20 actually existed.
Now states, finding themselves short of funds, are simply passing the costs onto private businesses, mandating that they do what the state cannot afford. This approach makes it even more difficult for politicians to feel the impacts of their poor environmental decision-making, because the costs are paid by someone else, even as politicians receive the benefits of appearing green.
The reason these approaches fail is simple. Too many of today’s environmental policies are designed primarily to create a “green image” – not to deliver environmental results. A number of recent studies show how powerful the emotional benefits of looking green really are.
A study involving Seattle and Boulder, CO, found that people were willing to pay thousands of dollars more for a Prius than other hybrids due to its distinctive green appearance and style. Another study, by J.D. Power and Associates found the No. 1 reason people said they buy hybrids is “what it says about me.”
We should not begrudge anyone for benefitting from decisions that truly help the environment. The problem arises when emotionally satisfying decisions do not actually help the environment. Do we admit our mistakes, losing the good feeling we gained by appearing green, or do we reject the data and jealously guard our carefully built green self-image?
As anyone who has hiked, fished, sailed or cares about wildlife can attest, real concern for the environment is not a fad. So why treat environmental policies like an impulse buy at the supermarket – indulging a desire to publicly demonstrate our green credentials?
Too often the choice made by politicians and green consumers is to reject science and stick with failed, but trendy, environmental fads. The very trendiness that increased awareness about environmental problems is now one of the chief obstacles to making science-based, rational assessments of environmental policy.
This need not be the case. Like Alcoholics Anonymous, we should take the first step of admitting we have a problem. We must recognize that chasing a trendy green image undermines our ability to make sound environmental decisions.
If we obstinately refuse to change failed policies, however, we harm the environment. At a time of tight budgets, continuing to pour scarce resources into failed policies squanders opportunities to improve water quality, protect wildlife habitat and improve energy efficiency.
Politicians, businesses and activists see eco-fads as an opportunity to reap the rewards of cultivating a green image. Unfortunately, eco-fads are now the biggest obstacle to making real environmental progress.
Todd Myers directs the Center for the Environment at the Washington (state) Policy Center in Seattle. Considered a leading authority on free-market environmental policy, he is the author of several books, including “Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism Is Harming the Environment.” Contact him at email@example.com. Myers will speak on “Eco-Fads in Parking” on Monday morning, March 19, at the 2012 PIE.