Green in the Balance

If there's anything we economists understand - and it's fair to say there's a lot we don't - it's that life is about trade-offs. I have been particularly fascinated with the extent to which this truism intersects with the current "green" movement. In our "you can have it all" culture, it is tempting to want to brush aside the "inconvenient truth" about trade-offs. But I think that does a disservice to the movement's very noble objectives, and lead me to worry that its proponents are either more interested in looking green than being green, or that they have deluded themselves into thinking that somehow this particular topic is not bound by the physics of trade-offs. If I may offer but three quotes from articles I've recently read, which challenge some of the incomplete thinking we often see on green issues:

* That LEED-certified buildings must necessarily be the greenest way to do office. "How green can it possibly be when every employee is driving 30 or 40 miles to arrive at a LEED-certified office building?" – “City Prepares for Green-Building Conference in 2012,” Philadelphia Inquirer (October 15, 2009).

* That the labor-intensive nature of green energy is a salve in times of high unemployment. “To be sure, there are very real benefits from limiting climate change. But if it takes more jobs to produce ‘green energy,’ that is a net cost to the economy, not a benefit.” – “Green Jobs,” Marginal Revolution (October 19, 2009).

* That locally produced food is necessarily better for the environment. “Localism ‘is not always the most environmentally sound solution if more emissions are generated at other stages of the product life cycle than during transport.’” – “Food That Travels Well,” New York Times (August 6, 2007).

One can make very valid counter-arguments to all three of these points. My point is not to refute these and other green sentiments wholesale. I am not some anti-green, reactionary hater, reveling in poking holes in the latest fad (although I know some of that type, and find conversation with them absolutely delicious). Rather, I want the same things as the greenies; I just think that without introducing this notion of trade-offs, we either don't advance the cause or, even worse, hinder it further. As labeled previously, the above statements are not wrong; they are just incomplete, missing some key counter-points that must be accounted for if we really want to make some progress.

This topic has intensified in heat of late, and unfortunately has caused people to close off, rather than open up, to opposing arguments - witness the heat over the global cooling chapter in SuperFreakonomics, or the hacked Climate Research Unit server. Let's all agree, even if we disagree, that we're trying to achieve the same things; and, for once, listen to each other so we actually learn a thing or two, figure out what can and should be done, and advance the football on this issue. Unless, of course, you care less about the environment and more about either looking good or defending your ideology; then I have no time to just blow hot air.

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