Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Individual Environmentalism and Climate Change

So I got to wondering how much excess carbon was created by my daughter's diapers. Lots of websites will try to frighten you about the nonbiodegradable nature of disposable diapers, but they don't say much in specifics. There's all this desire to have cloth diapers and lots of ecotastic websites touting their virtues, or more specifically the virtues of those who choose to use them.

I finally found an answer on a website for Nature Babycare diapers that says that your child produces a half ton of diapers for every year of life. I presume this figure is a good goalpost to use because it is meant to scare you into buying their diapers - it is highly unlikely that it is an understatement. So even four years of diapers is two tons of material. Now, two tons of sh*t seems like a lot, but you have to think in terms of carbon offsets. The carbon offset credit you can buy at many places is about $100 for 5 tons of carbon. Even assuming that the diapers are all carbon (if only...) that doesn't seem like such a big deal. Balanced against the sanitation benefit and convenience, disposable diapers seem like a great bang-for-the-buck. In fact, I would wager that there are few disposable products that have such a favorable cost-benefit environmental balance as disposable diapers.

The bigger problem is that so many diapers fill up landfills and are not biodegradable. But here's the hitch: NOTHING really biodegrades in landfills, where the atmosphere is anaerobic. According to the goverment website I linked to, landfills are normally designed to be nonreactive, to prevent stinky rotting which is what biodegrading consists of unless you have a nice compost pile. And our garbage isn't so nice. So even biodegradable products, when thrown away, normally compost, i.e., won't biodegrade if thrown away.

So this all led me to think about green myths. We know that a lot of recycled material that you put in your green bin is actually just thrown away by the municpality, not recycled. I get the sense that big business has encouraged all kinds of hippy-dippy green-ness and individual feel-good recycling to distract us from the real problems: massive agricultural and industrial pollution. The individual consumer takes the blame. Clever. Not so clever.


Pombat said...

Hmmm. Interesting post LTG.

I'm going to agree and disagree though: I think the real problems are agricultural pollution, industrial pollution, AND individual consumers' attitudes.

For example, if I buy the cheapest possible foods, which have been industrially farmed using plenty of chemicals (which as we all know, cause all sorts of problems, from leaching into rivers screwing up other ecosystems to the degradation of previously naturally fertile land due to no organic-matter inputs), I am sending a message to both that industry and the government that the most important issue to me is the cost of food. If on the other hand I choose to buy probably more expensive, naturally grown items, I send a message saying that I am willing to forgo that extra cash in my pocket for the sake of better food - better for me, better for the environment.

Another problem is that a lot of the stuff that individual people/consumers* send to landfill really doesn't need to be going there. This runs the whole spectrum from 'old' televisions from two years ago, still in working condition, but which 'had' to be upgraded because of a consumerist mindset; to foods that would biodegrade perfectly normally if thrown into a compost bin, a worm farm, or a designed-to-be-used-indoors-if-you-have-no-outdoor-space cute little Bokashi bin (and an Amazon link). Granted, the Bokashi bin needs an outdoor space for the waste to be ultimately disposed of in, but I'm pretty sure everyone is capable of finding a home gardener who'll grab free compost quite happily.

Then we have things like packaging, which can again be consumer influenced: if you blindly buy an overpackaged item, and take all that packaging home, to later go into landfill, you're giving tacit approval to this industry-started pollution/needless consumption & waste. If on the other hand you deliberately choose items without excess packaging, or start being even more obvious by leaving all excess packaging on the end of the supermarket checkout, you can cut down on packaging use by sending the message that you care, and you don't want it.

Bottom line though is that most people are only concerned about what is most convenient and cheap for them. For example, in your post you focus on the low price of the 'carbon offset' for the disposable diapers, and then magically declare that they have a favourable cost-benefit environmental balance. How, exactly, do you figure that there's an 'environmental balance' happening here?!

I agree that the 'hippy-dippy green-ness' you refer to is all too often no more than a panacea, a distraction. However, I do not agree with your implication that the individual consumer/person is blameless in all this (apologies if you don't believe individuals to be blameless, but that's how it reads to me). My bottom line is that we all need to take personal responsibility for our choices, regardless of what big agriculture & industry are doing, and that if enough of us make 'good' choices, we can force 'them' to change too - they're motivated by our money.

I can't help thinking about what would happen if we all decided to have a Rubbish Free Year.

(another blogger's take on that story)

*I don't refer to myself as a consumer. I'm a person, not a consumer. I wish more people felt and acted this way.

Raised By Republicans said...

I think that there are far worse things for business interests to manipulate us with than "hippy dippy greenness."

Sure, it sounds like a lot of it is BS but they are (perhaps unintentionally) marketing in favor of green attitudes which are spreading in part because of their efforts. It's probably a more effective way to convince people that the environment matters than government public service announcements or self-righteous preaching by various self appointed green illuminati. Besides, if the "truth in advertising laws" were enforced more strictly in these cases, it might actually do the good they promise.

Raised By Republicans said...

The Self Appointed Green Illuminati....

Have any of you guys ever seen or heard a debate between a local-vore, a vegetarian and an organic food advocate? I have. It was very enlightening. All three were 100% convinced not only of the rationality of their various perspectives but of their moral rectitude. The interesting thing though is that they are often contradictory positions. All three are part of the "Green" movement.

For someone who might be sympathetic to the environmental concerns and policies advocated by various green politicians, this collective confusion combined with such individual certainty is off putting.

Of course, all movements have these characteristics. That's why I think the trend to using saving the environment as a marketing tool is a promising development. It's far more likely to shift the thinking of open minded people who aren't quite environmentalists.

Anonymous said...

What I don't understand about the push for cloth diapers is why it is considered a better choice than disposables if energy costs are considered. Even assuming the cloth diaper itself is carbon neutral (which is a stretch if it is cotton), cloth diapers have to be washed in hot water and in many places, dried in a clothes drier. The American stay-at-home ubermummy who chided me in yoga class about "icky chemicals" probably does 7 loads of laundry more than I do. How is that better, exactly?

There is also a feminist problem re extra labor. It's a rare man who pushes his wife to do cloth diapers and house elves rarely take up baby laundry as a hobby.

-Seventh Sister

Raised By Republicans said...

LTG, that 2 tons of diapers that loaded or empty?

Dr. Strangelove said...

That is half a ton of "used diapers" per year, according the original website LTG quote, Nature Babycare. (That works out to about 3 lbs. per day.) Since the contents of disposable diapers are rarely, if ever, separated from the diapers themselves, I would have to think that figure includes the waste.

Bob said...

I agree with Pombat. A lot more voting happens with wallets than with ballots. [Rats, I wish that rhymed.] Not disagreeing with LTG's point, that individual-level eco-responsibility thing has been used as a dodge.

Hopefully it can be turned to useful ends, if people take the tack "hey, I'm doing all this stuff to save the planet, the companies should be too."

In general, I deeply hope that people turn their consumership into asserting their values. (Well, technically I want them to assert _my_ values...) Maybe the internet and documentarians can provide useful information that people can use to decide what to buy for reasons other than just price.

Pombat said...

Just as long as the attitude taken is "I'm doing all this stuff to save the planet, the companies should be too," rather than "the companies aren't doing anything, so I'm not going to bother either / until they do"...

Raised By Republicans said...

Of course Pombat, I agree. But I see corporate marketing houses as the most effective ways of shifting people's attitudes yet devised by human kind.

I've long thought that the way the environment will be saved will be when people figure out how to make money doing it. These semi-bogus ads are the first step. Obama's green economy stimulus is a another.

Dr. Strangelove said...

We do not give people economic incentives to encourage them not to vandalize property--we punish that behavior. Society recognizes that damaging people's property like that is not acceptable. Similarly we no longer give people economic incentives to encourage them not to dump toxic waste into the ocean--we punish that behavior. Society now recognizes that damaging the environment like that is not acceptable. It is another form of vandalism.

This is the shift in attitudes required to reduce carbon footprints. Once society recognizes greenhouse gasses to be pollutants--as a form of atmospheric vandalism--we will take the necessary individual and corporate steps to prevent it. While curbing these emissions is still viewed as a curious luxury, like "organic" produce, there will never be a mass movement.

Simply put, encouraging smaller carbon footprints as a good thing to do is not enough. Unnecessarily large carbon footprints must be viewed as a bad thing, a criminal thing.

Raised By Republicans said...

Dr. S. Certainly coercion will play - and already does play - an important role. Your vandalism analogy is very apt for the kinds of negative externalities imposed by pollution. Factories dump into rivers and belch smoke into the air imposing costs on all of us but everyone but the polluter often pays those costs. Coercive regulations about clean up and environmental protection are designed to internalize those externalities.

But for the rest of our daily activities, economic incentives will have to play a big role. We need options. And those options right now are only just now starting to get going. Like Pombat says, right now she pays more for more environmentally friendly life style choices. She's happy to do that but not everyone is. The day is coming soon when it won't be a choice and the best way to cushion the impact of that day is to start working on making the kinds of choices Pombat makes cheaper and even more efficient for the rest of us. Government orders and coercion won't do that. Markets will.

Pombat said...

And that's exactly why I make those choices. I recognise that not everyone can afford to, but feel that those of us that can afford to have an obligation and responsibility to do so, in order to drive that market change.

I will also admit that this is not a wonderful selfless act on my part - I want children, and I want them to have a decent world to grow up in.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Environmental damage is a collective action problem. It's a "tragedy of the commons" problem. Environmental improvement won't work if we rely on voluntary contributions by individuals, because those who don't cooperate negate the efforts of others. Big business is getting savvier and is no longer standing in the way of "being green." But it wants to make sure the focus is on shaming individuals into sorting their garbage and making hemp diapers, not on actually requiring big industry and big agriculture to do anything. It prefers all this voluntary stuff to regulation, because it knows that voluntary stuff is a great distraction.

Pombat, there will not be market change. That's the thing. Sorry to disappoint, but no amount of voluntary do-goodism will ever counteract the power of the market. Cheaper goods will drive out more expensive ones of similar quality; they always do. Big businesses know this. They know that the iron laws of ecnoomics mean that you can persuade yuppies to buy expensive organic products, but that will never ever change the rest of the market.

Pombat said...

Bullshit on the market argument, because it's flawed as you present it.

Yes, cheaper goods will drive out more expensive ones of similar quality, however in the case of food, we are NOT talking about goods of similar quality. The food I buy is better than what's available in the supermarket (and half the time it's cheaper too, since I buy from the market). I define 'better' by a range of measures, including taste and nutritional value.

If we take an example of food that I buy that is more expensive: I buy free range pork products from a local company called Gypsy Pig, who are raising Tamworths and Large Blacks, both of which are rare breeds. They are bred and raised totally free range, with small sheds provided for the mother pigs to nest in when they want, and the pigs free to live as they please, rooting around in the fields. They even get to keep their tails*. Their products are more expensive, for example sausages at just over $15/kg, as opposed to the $10/kg at the market. However, the Gypsy Pig sausages are so much tastier than the market sausages, it's almost untrue! They're also made with natural sausage skin (not plastic), very little 'bulking' material (i.e. mostly pork), and as few preservatives etc etc as possible. Their pork chops are also delicious, particularly lightly pan fried in sage butter, to the point that the meat is cooked through, but still a pale pink inside. Cheaper chops simply do not compare on texture nor taste.

Then there's the moral side of things - you've said before LTG, that when you go shopping for eggs, you joke about what level of cruelty you want today. I don't joke about that. I know that if I buy a dozen box of 'standard', cheap, cage reared eggs, then I am directly responsible for a dozen chickens having their beaks chopped off (so that they can't cannibalise each other), and being stuffed into one foot by one foot cages, along with up to four other chickens, in which they can barely turn around, and certainly can't do anything as chickeny as stretching their wings or pecking the ground for grubs. If I buy those eggs, I am responsible for those chickens never seeing sunlight nor breathing fresh air. On the other hand, if I spend a bit more, to buy free range eggs, I am responsible for chickens living a natural, chickeny existence, and I get higher quality eggs.

*re pigs tails: pigs are intelligent creatures. When they are intensively farmed, they get depressed. They are also removed from their mother before being properly weaned. This leaves them wanting to suckle. So they suckle the tail of the pig in front, and as their teeth grow, they also chew. A normal pig would fight this off, a depressed pig stands there and lets themself be chewed, which leads to infection, which leads to the 'product' being unsuitable for market, and needing to be removed from the farm. They shoot them where they stand then remove the body. The 'solution' to all this is to chop the piglets' tails off, down to a small stub, to make them more sensitive to being chewed, so that they'll fight back.

Now, you are correct that environmental improvement won't work if we just rely on voluntary contributions by individuals, but that is no excuse not to voluntarily contribute anyway. To use it as an excuse is just pathetically lazy - "well, no-one else is doing it, so why should I?" - sounds like a five year old. Also, peer pressure is a wonderful thing: when 'normal' is consuming as much as possible and not giving a crap about what goes in landfill, people don't feel bad about doing it, and no-one calls them out on it; when 'normal' is being as responsible as possible, people will try and conform to that norm.

Pombat said...

For an example, come down here to Melbourne, particularly in summer, and openly use a hose to slosh water around wastefully, washing your car and driveway, whilst loudly talking about how nice your twenty minute shower was this morning. I can guarantee that you will experience everything from people glaring at you, to people ordering you to turn the water off and verbally abusing you for being selfish about water use. This is because being responsible about water use is the norm here, and everyone knows that being wasteful has an impact on us all.

So, what I am saying is not that we should rely solely upon voluntary individual contributions, but that we all have a responsibility to do what we can, in addition to big industry/agriculture requirements. I'm also saying that requirements upon 'big' are more likely to happen, and more likely to be stringent, if we're all doing as much as we can, because polls will show the pollies that we care about this stuff, maybe even that our votes could depend on it all.

ps in my first comment I asked for an explanation of your diaper 'environmental balance' comment - still don't get it, clarification please?