Monday, February 12, 2007

Pollute Commute

Waste Homeostasis and the Pollute Commute

By John Taylor; 2007 Feb 12

Jesus said that "wisdom is justified by all her children," (Luke 7:35, WEB) and we are rediscovering this in our confrontation with global warming. Andrew Potter, in his opinion column in Maclean's Magazine, debunks the received thinking about sustainability,

"For over 30 years now, the debate over sustainability has been marred by a fairly simple misunderstanding: that there is such a thing as a sustainable technology or a sustainable product. ... We have missed the fact that sustainability is not a matter of how things are designed, but of how they are used." ("Planet-friendly design? Bah, humbug" by Andrew Potter, Maclean's, February 12, 2007, p. 14)

He holds up the example of the hybrid car, subsidized by tax deductions because they are supposedly more efficient but as yet most of them offer a only slight increase in acceleration with little or no improvement in mileage. And of course even when vehicles are more efficient, the laws of economics tend to kick in. If it is cheaper, drivers will drive longer and further. If it is easier and more comfortable, they will use that as an excuse to driver longer and further. When buying a new one they will purchase the largest and heaviest vehicle that their budget will bear. All of these nullify the advantages of efficiency and other technical improvements.

"This is an example of a kind of law of technological progress: improvements in efficiency end up making things bigger or faster while keeping energy consumption constant. A similar dynamic appears to be at work in the suburban housing market. The single most important consequence of new environmentally friendly housing technologies, for instance, has not been the development of small, extremely cost-effective housing, but rather the proliferation of McMansions. This is because most people tend to buy the biggest house they can afford. If high-efficiency furnaces and state-of-the-art insulation make houses less expensive to heat, people simply buy bigger houses. If low-emission glass and argon inserts improve the insulating properties of windows, they just install bigger windows, so the overall heat loss from the house remains unchanged. Our consumption habits seem to be ruled by a principle of "waste homeostasis," where the energy savings we get from better technology is used to fund better toys." (Id.)

He gets this term from Gerald Wilde, a professor of psychology at Queen's University, who argues that each of us has a set level of risk tolerance. We seek our own comfort level, which leads to "risk homeostasis." Football players protected by better pads use their bodies as offensive weapons, thus consciously nullifying their expected safety value. Rugger and Australian football players play their contact sports without padding or helmets and sustain fewer injuries because they know what will happen if they use their exposed heads as battering rams. Civil libertarians follow Wilde's logic to argue that safety regulations nullify themselves in real life. For example, when we are forced to wear seatbelts we feel safer and tend to drive faster and more recklessly. Bicyclists legally obliged to use helmets tend to pay less attention and in number of accidents more than make up for the better head protection.

Potter points to the conclusion that this logic leads to,

"When it comes to social policy, the theory of risk homeostasis says it is pointless for the state to try to reduce overall risk. Rather, the state should directly reward the behaviour it wants more of, and directly punish behaviour it wants less of. So instead of forcing people to wear seatbelts, for instance, the state should impose massively punitive fines for speeding. The same applies to the environment, where we should start thinking in terms of behaviour, not technology. If we want people to use less fuel, they need to drive slower, so maybe a sizable horsepower tax is in order. If we're bothered by the rise of McMansions, we need to think seriously about a luxury tax on window size and square footage."

This is similar to what Mark the consultant was saying at the Philosopher's Cafe meeting, that government should arbitrarily raise the price of plastic shopping bags to ten dollars, and then let the market work it out for itself. It even superficially resembles what we discussed in detail yesterday, that is, Baha'u'llah's statement that justice trains the world by applying due rewards and punishments. The reason I say superficially is that although he pays lip service to rewards, really only negative punishments are mentioned. What about reward? Where does that fit in?

Slightly better is a proposal laid out in an essay called "Taxes and Traffic Jams" by the economist I have been reading lately, Paul Krugman. (The Accidental Theorist; And Other Dispatches from the Dismal Science, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1998, p. 173) He suggests setting up a free market of traffic credits in order to reduce congestion on crowded streets and highways. He points out the space a vehicle takes up on a public road is a form of property and should be treated as such. In a "volume of traffic" situation that space on the road becomes scarcer and more valuable. In this system it would cost more to take up a space during rush hour and drivers who find ways to avoid using their vehicles (say by car pooling or staggering working hours) at less busy times would be given credits that they could trade or sell to those who have no choice but drive then. Several years after Krugman wrote this essay, a limited version of this idea was partly adopted in London. Large tolls are now charged to drive at certain hours of the day; to the surprise of everyone except professional economists, this measure proved a great success and is even popular with those who drive at this time, since they encounter gridlock less often now. As Krugman points out, this is a bipartisan idea, advocated by economists of both stripes, liberal and conservative.

Both ideas, waste homeostasis and the rush hour credit system, fall short, though, because they treat symptoms rather than the disease itself.

The ideal way to conserve is not to expend energy in the first place.

There is no need to take a pollute commute at all if your workplace is within walking distance of where you live. That is the ideal; that is the only way deserving of the word "sustainable." It means redesigning entire systems, and instituting rewards for neighborhoods that approach this ideal and punishments for those that do not. As Mark asserted in our fast forwarded argument, that would mean in many places biting the bullet and taking a bulldozer to vast cityscapes throughout North America in order to start again from scratch. But there is no other way to seriously address the most serious threat to our survival, the climate crisis.

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