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playthebanjo's avatar

An eco-heretic’s weighty reasoning?

Asked by playthebanjo (2944points) June 4th, 2008

This was in the Atlanta Journal Constitution today. Any thoughts? Agree/Disagree?

Like everyone else, I value a clean and healthy environment and prefer that global warming not melt too many glaciers or destroy too much polar bear habitat. But like most people, I could do more to protect the environment than I do. Indeed, some would consider me an environmental heretic. I prefer plastic to paper and paper to a canvas bag for carrying out my groceries. I find genetically modified food more appealing than the organic variety. I don’t recycle newspapers, aluminum cans, glass bottles, batteries, cellphones or Styrofoam cups.

I’ve never been able to work up an emotional reaction to wetlands. I favor drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And I donate far more money to free-market think tanks than to environmental organizations.

I’m confident that my confession of environmental failings will motivate condemnation by many of those who are proud of the sacrifices they make to reduce their footprints on the planet. And I would never have made my confession in such a public forum had I not read something recently that gives me the confidence to hold my head up high against the personal criticisms that will be directed against me.

According to a study published in The Engineering Economist, overweight Americans are contributing to global warming as a result of increased gasoline consumption. Because the average American adult weighs about 25 pounds more than in 1960, it is estimated our cars and light trucks burn up close to an additional billion gallons of gas each year. That represents a lot of additional greenhouse gas to haul around the extra freight the overweight are packing on at the dinner table.

If Americans lost enough weight to get back to the 1960 average (which was hardly skinny), we would save almost as much energy while driving as is being generated by the heavily subsidized windmills that are killing large numbers of birds. And we are not even talking about the extra fuel being burned by the airlines to haul the heavier human cargo, or by the trucks to bring the extra food to our local grocery stores and restaurants.

So I see no reason to let personal criticism from overweight environmentalists lower my self-esteem. To them I say, sure, I could do more to protect the environment, but so could you. Some will respond that their extra poundage makes no noticeable difference on the environment. I could counter by claiming that neither does my behavior have any noticeable effect on environmental quality. But I won’t.

Individual behavior is important, and though no one does all she can to reduce pollution, most of us make small contributions to the environment in our own ways. I am proud to say that I am making a difference. By watching my diet and engaging in strenuous daily exercise, I have kept my weight within a pound or two of what it was in 1960 when I was 19 years old.

Maintaining my weight, however, is not what I consider my most important contribution to the environment. Over the years, I have taught thousands of university students how to think about environmental problems from an economic perspective. In particular, I have shown how environmental policy could do much more to improve environmental quality at far less cost by relying more on market incentives and individual freedom and less on government commands and controls. Furthermore, I have used my classroom to make careful arguments that some of my environmental failings (for example, not recycling newspapers, using Styrofoam cups and giving money to free-market think tanks) are good for the environment.

You may disagree with my views on how best to protect the environment, but please don’t assume that this means I am less concerned about improving environmental quality than you are.

I will be glad to hear from anyone, even an overweight environmentalist, who has logical, as opposed to emotional, arguments for why the economic perspective on environment protection is flawed.

> Dwight R. Lee, co-author of “Common Sense Economics: What Everyone Should Know About Wealth and Prosperity,” is a professor of economics at the University of Georgia.

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2 Answers

Hobbes's avatar

This is interesting, and if the numbers on it held up (that is, if he’s right that current environmentalist methods don’t work well enough) I’d be inclined to agree with him.

Poser's avatar

I agree. Government mandates are never as effective as economic/free market forces.

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