6.17.2009

Inconvenient But Simple Solutions to our Planet's Problems


The part of me that grew up reading National Geographic applauds all green initiatives as well-meaning; the practical libertarian in me turns a skeptical eye towards large scale government initiatives that seek to legislate greenness. CAFE standards, "cash for clunkers" programs, requiring LEED certification, setting up complicated cap and trade programs: these all assume a level of precision of understanding how human behavior will play out that simply can't be had, and they all have unintended consequences and can be gamed.

Perhaps where I would place my effort is equally susceptible to these errors, but I'll venture my alternative anyway. As urban economist Edwin Mills would say, "Get the price right." Gas is artificially low because it doesn't account for tons of negative externalities. Our water bills don't properly account for each lot's contribution to stormwater runoff. We throw away trash with no regard to the additional cost of each bag on our municipal landfills.

Of course, I have just recommended three politically unpopular countermeasures. Not surprisingly, people aren't clamoring for these solutions. And so we will live with the consequences of convoluted, counter-productive, easily gamed top-down solutions, instead of somewhat more easily implemented alternatives that lead to behavioral changes in response to more proper price signals.

Again I ask: would you prefer politically untenable but rational and effective solutions, or crazily designed ideas that have the appearance of taking serious actions but which simply compound our challenges. I know which one I would choose, but I also know which one is leaving the train station. Which is a shame: one need not even crack open Al Gore's book to know, just by reading the front cover, that in order to do right by the planet, one needs to accept some "inconvenient" realities.

PS As a very long post-script to this post, let me also note that doomsday scenarios from the past have failed to come to fruition thanks to the remarkable ingenuity of humans to do more with less. Looking ahead, I am encouraged that we will continue to innovate our way to game-changing solutions to seemingly intractable problems like how to feed billions of people, how to make the most of scarce natural resources, and how to minimize any catastrophic impacts associated with global warning. However, I am discouraged if business is beat up so much around the world - vilified by reactionary citizenries and hamstrung by equally reactionary governments - that they are insufficiently motivated, capitalized, and encouraged towards the innovations that our livelihoods and our lives will depend on. So which will it be? Stay tuned.
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