Choices

DeeMack sends us news of the death of Robert McCall, the so-called “Picasso of the Space Age”. My fellow space nerds may recognize some of his work:

Last night, I was a proud participant in one of the “Climate Justice Teach-Ins” that are peppering campuses across North America. Thanks to all who came out, and to my fellow professors who represented climate change perspectives in social science and chemical engineering.

I’ve written about Climate Change issues in this space many times before: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

I laid bare my anti-green lifestyle in my article about mass drivers and power satellites. It’s not that I don’t believe that ecological responsibility is better and more moral, it’s just that I am weak and selfish.

More to the point, there’s a common environmentalist attitude that I’d like to take issue with. Very often, the onus is placed on the common citizen to transcend his so-called greed and his innate tendency to make decisions that are immediately and personally beneficial in favour of options that are, presumably, better for society on the whole.

For instance, the choices not to drive, or to turn off more lights, or to eat locally grown foods, are considered ecologically superior choices because they impel lighter carbon footprints. The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to walk rather than to drive. It’s inconvenient to turn out more lights and to huddle under blankets rather than to turn up the heat. And it’s more expensive to buy many local products, rather than to rely on cheaper, foreign-made products. I mean, there’s a reason we Ontarians import our salads from California: somehow, they manage to get it to us more cheaply than do the farmers down the road.

The reason they are able to do so cheaper is that many such products and practices are subsidized, eithr directly by government programs, or indirectly through the weirdness of our economic system. For instance, the deleterious ecological impact of the CO2 emissions of the trucks used to transport my salad from California does not show on the price of the actual salad; the so-called “commons” of group environmental ownership absorbs these immense costs which, on most accounting sheets, only shows up as something economists call “externalities”.

So environmentalists’ call for individuals to make these extraordinary choices is in fact an appeal to the human animal to regularly choose options that are, in the immediate and tangible sense, disadvantageous to said individual. We are not very good at making such decisions. For proof of this, all we have to do is look at the global obesity epidemic. We would rather choose the fatty foods for short term pleasure, than the healthy foods for long term health, even though we all know what we should choose.

I’ve been trying to think of an historical example of an instance in which a society deliberately chose an option that was immediately economically deleterious because it was more moral to do so. The only one I can think of is Britain’s decision to abandon slavery in the 1830s. This was a remarkable moment in world history: the call to dissolve the British slave trade was, to the best of my knowledge, the result of the British people’s moral choice to distance themselves from a practice that, while immensely profitable, was nonetheless distasteful. For some decades afterwards, they paid an economic price, as goods such as sugar became harder to produce without paying labourers to replace free slave toil.

So what am I trying to say? I’m saying that environmentalist appeals for voluntary changes in individual behaviour are bound to fail on a large scale, because it is not reasonable to expect the common man to make decisions on a regular basis that are economically disadvatageous to himself and his family.

The solution has to be a governmental one and a macro-economic one. Specifically, governments must decide that products and behaviours must bear the real financial price that they truly represent. My California salad cannot be cheaper than my Ontario salad, because the price of the former must reflect the price of the gas to transport it, and the price of the ecologic damage caused by said gas. In this way, when individuals are compelled to make choices that are not only moral but economically wise, a behavioural change of sufficient magnitude may be effected to result in genuine gains in the battle against Climate Change.

End of sermon.