The Lazy Environmentalist / Smug Pollution

I’ve written about energy conservation issues several timeson this blog and in itsprecursor rants section.This is a topic that is pertinent to the economics of the hardwareupon which we ply our trade.

I was advocating compactfluorescent lightbulbs six years ago, and have documented my family’s power usage along with some ofthe stepswe’ve taken to reduce it.

We turn off the (100% CF) lights when we don’t need them,intelligently bank cooler outdoor air on summer nights to limit airconditioning, and we try to conscientiously reduce the energy we’reusing. When we buy electronics and appliances, the Energy Starrating tops our criteria list.


This year we even marginally supplemented our food purchaseswith the produce of a humble home vegetable garden (doing our verysmall part to reduce the energy used to grow and transport itfrom elsewhere, not to mention that a small patch of onceslow-growing grass now hosts fast-growing, carbon-trappingvegetables).

We are far from a great example ofa carbon-neutral lifestyle, however. As I write this my wifeand children are travelling in our fuel-guzzling, 5000lb 255hpminivan to a children’s museum some two hundred kilometersaway. We don’t forsake modern conveniences like televisions andgaming systems, and of course I wouldn’t go without my computers.We live in a suburban home, adding to suburban sprawl, and oftencommute long distances.

Compared to an urban dweller living in a tiny condo, commutingto work via the foot express, we’re gluttonous power pigs. We’relazy environmentalists of convenience.

It’s this pragmatism that has me questioning a lot of theenviro-nonsense that has become a religion as of late. Many, itseems, feel a perverse, corrupting need to polarize their position– as has sadly become the norm in many areas of debate– simplistically categorizing everything into absolute rightor wrongs.

Often there are only grays.

The 10,000 mile Diet

Buying local, for instance, is a meme that has taken hold inenviro-circles. Simply ensuring that whatever plastic junk you’rebuying wasn’t shipped overseas, and that yourstrawberries didn’t come from California (or, if you’re inCalifornia, that they didn’t come from wherever else growsstrawberries) and you’re doing your part to save the Earth, thememe goes.

Is that true?

If one only considers final shipment, then local farmers have anobvious enviro-advantage. Yet that energy analysis seemssimplistic: What if the alternative is grown on larger farms with alonger, more suitable growing season What if the economy of scaleof remote growers allows for increased automation andefficiency?

Is it really saving the environment if you’re buying from small,labour- and energy-intensive farms where crops have to be coercedthrough the short growing season via considerable energy andchemical assistance Where the ill-suited soil needs continuoussupplementation?

I’m not providing answers — I don’t have the numbers — but theenergy that goes into making the foods that you eat and theproducts that you buy is much more complex than simply measuringthe fuel that went into the boat or truck that it rode to yourgrocery store. Given the low cost of large plastic toys from China,for example, it’s clear by simple economics that very little energywas necessary to ship it across the ocean (and thatmight reduce further as shipping companies look to savecosts).

False Smugity

Automobiles are another area of the whole environment debatethat seems to be much more complex than often perceived.Consider the media’s coverage of Al Gore the IIIrd, son of Al Gorethe IInd, getting caught speeding down a California freeway at100mph in a Toyota Prius. Many of the newsreports described the car as “environmentally friendly”, and this hasbeen a recurring description when describing hybrid vehicles.

The Prius is “environmentally friendly” only by the sameconfused logic that would deem a lit M-80 “hand friendly” relativeto a stick of dynamite.

The Prius still requires roadways (and contributes to theclogging of the same) and parking lots and rubber tirefactories and mines. The perceived moral righteousness of the Priusand its ilk might even exacerbate the problem of urban sprawl,making people feel almost heroic to commute 40km to work in their”environmentally friendly” hybrid car. Worse, it stillrequires copious amounts of energy to move its 3000lbs around –not least of which is a giant array of batteries — often witha smug driver as the lone occupant, contributing to thegrowing trend of smug pollution (as South Park hilariouslycharacterized it).

The sort of absurd moralism about hybrid cars — the kind thathas the media declaring a 3000lb car “environmentally friendly”,and the rich and powerful can gain environment credibility by beingsighted in a hybrid (just ignore the numerousmansions and private jets…they were seen in a Prius!) — ishow you end up with absurdist theater like this.

The Prius is but one example (and I don’t mean to pick onhybrid cars. All else remaining the same they’re a definiteimprovement. Definitely better than the hilarious large older car Isaw roaring down the highway yesterday, prominent “BoycottGas!” sticker on the back). Many recent stories have praisedabsurdly high mileage vehicles, deep in the article noting thatmuch of the vehicle’s energy was supplied via an unmeasured drawfrom a household electric socket. That’s akin to claiming thatyour 1984 Chevy Citation gets great mileage by going half ofits kilometers slung on the back of a tow truck. That sort ofenergy-fraud is becoming far too common.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Consider also how the so-called law ofunintended consequences rears its head when you improve theoperating costs (both economic and moral) of an activity: A driverof a fuel-guzzling SUV is likely more apprehensive about longdrives, knowing how the exorbitant fuel costs will punishtheir wallet. Reduce the moral and economic costs, however, byreplacing their vehicle with a more efficient model, and suddenlylonger commutes and familydrives become acceptable again, completely negating any energysavings.

Here in Ontario the power grid’s supply barely exceedsnormal consumption: Decades of Not-In-My-Backyardism and costcutting has the province importing power during peak loads. Toreduce demand, reducing imports and staving off the building ofexpensive new power plants, the province has been offering rebateson energy star appliances, and direct rebates on things like LEDChristmas lights. The latter makes for an interestingstudy: I suspect the super-efficient LED lights have many consumersbulking their Christmas display up with more lights, andthen leaving them on longer. That is the rough conclusion of somesmall studies done on behalf of the utility, coming to theconclusion that the programs did nothing to reduce consumption. Butit did help make for a more colourful Christmas display.

I don’t pretend to know the answers, or to have all of thenumbers to declare basic truths about energy consumption (otherthan “less overall is better than more overall”), but I do knowenough to know that it’s much more complex than the superficial,naive analysis commonly repeated.