Thursday, August 15, 2013

Is it enough?

In response to yesterday’s post, Anonymous liked the analogy, but added, “What I don't like is how you admit to NOT doing your part. And all after doing research and writing such a post! Stranger than fiction...”

Of course, the easiest out would have been to have lied, but I don’t think that’s what Anonymous had in mind.

Here’s the thing. While I’m almost certainly above the 2,000-Watt line that I referenced in the first post, I’m also significantly below the level of energy use for someone in a household with my income.

We have one car for a household with two drivers. Granted, we have it easier than some, since I live 1.2 miles from work and can bike or walk, leaving the car available for my wife if she needs it. But it’s still not an entirely trivial decision, as we learned when the city closed our boys’ elementary school. It had been on the way from our house to Hartwick College, and it was a few blocks from the YMCA where they sometimes have after-school lessons, so walking/biking with them was easy. Now it’s 1.6 miles. We bike sometimes in nice weather. They take the bus sometimes (though the route means it can take almost an hour to get home). We do drive them sometimes. And when the weather’s not safe for biking and one of them has something at the Y after school, my wife and I engage in some car balet to make the day work.

Among the students, I’m known as something of an environmental extremist. This says more about our standards for environmental extremism than it does about me, but some of my actions are relatively visible. There’s the whole biking-to-work thing (Hartwick would probably have a lot more bike commuters if the college weren’t on a hill 200 feet above center city). Students often don’t realize I’m in my office even when the door is open, because I rarely turn on the light. (That’s partly an aesthetic choice, since I prefer daylight to artificial, and the window over my desk usually provides plenty for me to do my work. But there’s also an “aesthetic” of not using energy needlessly. Hiding from students is not consciously on my agenda.) I take the stairs rather than use the elevator for the one (one!) floor I have to climb. (I love seeing our student athletes waiting by the elevator to go up two floors in my building so they can save themselves a few stairs on their way to the gym.)

We are loyal customers of our local farmers market. Yes, the concept of “food miles” is too simple, but if I bike to the market, I’m still a long way from the case of someone driving 30 miles to a “nearby” farm in the name of keeping it local (though I’ve done that, too, on occasion).

Did I mention biking? I didn’t own a car at all until I was 30 and my sister sold me her 1975 Volvo when she moved away (I paid $100 for the car, $200 for the roof racks attached to it). I was enabled in that situation by having friends and roommates who were generous with their cars for the two to four times a month that driving was my only practical alternative. And I was enabled by living in Seattle, a city with a pretty good bus network and inexpensive student transit passes and bike racks on the buses. And I lived a mile from campus, and it was a mile from there to the food co-op (of course it was a food co-op). And I was enabled by not having kids.

Though we’re not vegetarians, we eat less meat than average, and some of what we eat is from cows that grew up 15 or 20 miles away, grazing on pasture. (There’s some evidence that New York state could maximize the number of people fed off its own land with low-meat diet rather than vegetarian, as long as the modest quantity of meat came from land that was better for pasture than for crops.)

In grad school in the 1990s I got to teach one of my most enjoyable classes. It was an introductory economics class for a summer institute that brought in promising high school students to study public policy (this one was at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington). It was a small group and the students were all sharp and motivated; in our discussions I was able to challenge them and have them challenge me right back. Towards the end a student asked if I was vegetarian and was surprised that I wasn’t.

“I thought all environmentalists were vegetarians.”

“Well, I’m also an economist.”

Which wasn’t simply a flip answer. It’s not that economists are cynical bastards (though that may play a role, too). It’s almost a reflection of the math we often use, where we try to stay away from corner solutions (all of one thing, none of the other), since there’s more intellectual interest in a “mixed” solution, where finding the optimum involves taking small steps one way or the other. As a discipline, we are temperamentally inclined away from all-or-nothing positions.

To sum up, I’m doing more “for the cause” than many of the people around me, even as I’m not doing enough. Looking around, I’m not alone, even among people who thing climate change is a BIG F-ING DEAL!

Part of that is my fault, part of it is social.

When my kids were toddlers I bought a two-seat trailer to go behind my bike. That enabled some trips to nursery school by bike rather than by car, which was satisfying. I would happily have taken a boy or two shopping with me, but to get to our grocery stores you have to go on highways where I feel OK biking by myself but irresponsible pulling my kids in a trailer. They’ve long outgrown the trailer and moved to their own bikes, but I still can’t take them with me on those roads (though we’re getting there).

And here’s the social part. I didn’t decide to place the grocery stores in the middle of environments that are hostile to anything but cars (that's where much of our community’s commercial activity is). I’ve been involved in efforts to modify that situation—I could have done more, but moving a boulder is not easy.

There’s also the general issue of the impact of individual choices. I recognize that even with the built environment I inhabit and can’t single-handedly change, I could reduce my footprint further through personal choices. And if most people made similar efforts, there would be a real impact. But if it’s just me and a few other “environmental extremists,” we could bring our footprint to zero and still have absolutely no effect on the larger situation.

This may again be characteristic of an economist’s perspective. My actions show I’m willing to take some steps, and make some sacrifices, but to what extent should I rearrange my life if it won’t make a material difference in the absence of lots of other people’s simultaneous efforts? (I’m cheating a bit here. I bike partly for the enjoyment of the physical activity, partly for the enjoyment of a smug sense of virtue. The smug sense of virtue plays a larger part on a cold, drizzly day, but even so, there’s something out-of-place if I describe biking as a “sacrifice.” It reminds me of people who say gays should exhibit virtue by not succumbing to temptation. The speaker is asking gays to resist a temptation he himself does not feel, thus implicitly conceding that homosexuality isn’t a choice. Then again, sometimes the speaker does feel that temptation …)

As many people have pointed out, individual action is useful but this is ultimately a problem of collective decision making. A good (though not sufficient) step would be to price carbon into fossil fuels. Just as an example, the energy part of the “local food” question would be simplified. Do you use more fossil energy growing tomatoes locally in a heated greenhouse than trucking them in from Florida? The price of the tomato will tell you. (The price still wouldn’t reflect the impact on your local community of keeping or losing working farms.)

Beyond carbon taxes or cap-and-trade policies, we need massive investment in a built environment that enables low-carbon choices rather than frustrating them.

And we could use a shift in cultural perspective, away from cars being unthinkingly accepted as prosthetics. But how do you get a change like that when I can count as an “extremist” for bike-commuting maybe 20 miles a week?

There’s a difference here from the slavery situation, in that an individual slaveowner could fully eliminate his participation in owning slaves, in a more definitive way than a resident of a modern economy can fully abjure carbon. But there are also similarities. Freeing your own slaves was good for them, but it didn’t bring their standing all the way to that of the whites around them, nor did it guarantee them against recapture by someone else. “Solving” the problem of slavery was a social task that required more than virtuous actions by individual slaveowners.

I’ve spilled a lot of words in response to a short comment on a blog post. I guess it’s because it’s a question that I mull a fair amount. And it points to the difficulty of our situation.

If moral choices were easy, they wouldn’t really count as moral choices.


  1. This is a well-thought and reasoned response, condensing a number of issues. Kudos! It reminds me of some earlier interchanges, which led me to write Local Economy Manifesto and a longer analysis in Walmart Socialism. However, with our current state of almost complete legislative paralysis in the U.S., it seems difficult to get much traction. Thank you to Karl for the continued mulling and to keep pushing on these issues.

  2. You know, it sometimes seems to me that these might be easier issues to collectively address if they were universally perceived as moral choices ... although the U.S. does have a long history of taking the rhetorical high road while behaving just as we like. I don't really think the problem is legislative traction so much as it is the hostility of the voting public for distasteful options like walking to the mailbox, biking to the supermarket, and supporting local farmers and merchants.

    Maybe, if people looked on it as doing the right thing instead of as a matter of convenience and/or symbolic of a higher standard of living, they might be more willing to give things up in order to reduce our collective fossil fuel use.

    Of course, they might just as possibly still be intractable on the subject. They could perhaps justify it by pointing out their own virtuous concern about the suffering of all the people who would lose their jobs. Maybe they would suggest that it would be a terrible waste of taxpayer dollars to rebuild the country to make cars less necessary, when there are other, more important things to be spending that money on. They might very well even assert that they are taking a stand against the evil government and its penchant for social engineering -- they'd start with cars and next thing you know they'd be telling us who to sleep with and how to plan our families.

    Most of the time, people do the right thing for as long as there isn't anything else they wanted to do. They seem to find it much easier to make their rhetorical morals conform to their wishes than it would be to rearrange their lives to conform to their actual morals.

    1. Thank for the comment, Dawn, though in reference to your last sentence, aren't people's "actual" morals the morals by which they actually live? In which case maybe the problem is people's unwillingness to rearrange their lives to conform to the morals they wish they had--their aspirational morals, if you will. And so there's a divide between people's actual morals and their rhetorical ones.

      Going to college in southern Indiana after growing up in suburban Boston, I could hardly fail to be struck by the particular brand of religious morality that so many people loudly proclaimed. I naively assumed they were more or less living by the standards they shouted from the rooftops. Imagine my surprise when I learned that, underneath the rooftops, they were shtuppin' each other. And sometimes engaging in other practices that they publically declared to be immoral even if you _were_ married.

      A friend had had conversations on the subject with some of his devout dormmates--"If you believe premarital sex is wrong, why are you sleeping with your girlfriend?" "Well, we're going to get married." Then they'd break up, both parties would start dating new people, and sleeping with them. "Well, we're going to get married..."

      Their behavior conformed to the mainstream culture's moral of serial monogamy, but deviated from their own proclaimed standards. It puzzled me that the contradiction didn't lead to more introspection.

    2. "And so there's a divide between people's actual morals and their rhetorical ones" -- Yes, that's what I meant. :-)

      Introspection requires a very particular type of courage, which appears to be quite rare ... at least, it does if one is honest about it.

      That lack of honest self appraisal is reflected in our politics, too. Offhand, I cannot think of anything we've done collectively simply because it was the right thing to do (although I'm sure I'm overlooking something) ... although I can think of plenty of instances where we didn't do the right thing and thought of lots of "good" reasons why we shouldn't have to live up to our hype.

      All of which is why I'm not sure that it's either fair or reasonable to suggest that, because you are concerned but not a crazy person, somehow you are not doing enough to single-handedly save the planet.

      Pointing fingers is easy.