Green Is Far, Mostly Pink

I’m teaching environmental econ again for the first time in six years, and reviewing some standard texts two things stand out:

  1. Green Is Mostly Pink – Weighted by public or private efforts, most environmental policies are focused on limiting the harm some “pink” humans do to others via intermediaries of air, water, food, light, or sound. Whether that harm passes through green stuff is incidental to such policies. Much of the rest focuses on vague concerns that current human ways are not “sustainable.” What little concern there is about green stuff out there is mostly to ensure humans have nice green places to visit when they want, and that humans avoid guilt for stuff that happens out there due to their intervention. Actually concern for the welfare of green stuff from its own point of view is pretty minimal.
  2. Green Is Far – At first, I found it hard to see what the various “environmental” topics have in common. Air purity, food locality, future human population, animal experiments, oil & mineral depletion, energy efficiency, sea levels, urban sprawl, landfills, consumerism, – what unites such diverse topics? And then it hit me: they are mostly rather “far“. That is, “environmental” concerns tend to be at unusually large distances in space, time, and social relation from ordinary folks and concerns. The common theme seems to be how we here now relate to much larger contexts, and the oddities of far-mode thinking go a long way to explain odd enviro thoughts.  Cosmology would be super-green, if folks thought we had a non-trivial relation to non-Earth life.
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  • I find the sustainable argument absurd. For example, because we cannot continue to extract petroleum at the current sustainably into infinity we should leave it in the ground unused! How absurd is that?

  • I’d argue that the issue of urban sprawl is quite “near”…it affects deeply what the world looks like right outside your house. Can your kids walk to school/their friends’? When you’re too old to drive, will you be able to get around? If you want to go out drinking, how will you get home? How far and how often will you go to the grocery story?

    These don’t seem like “far” issues to me.

    • I think you miss his point. None of the points you raise have a near term solution compared to a far term problem of a rapidly rising human population.

    • I recall looking down before landing in Salt Lake City at all of the wonderful development that had taken place. However, considering the surrounding natural features, the city began to look something like a cancer. That thought has stuck with me since.

  • Tim Tyler

    I think most things are pretty “pink”: humans care *mostly* about other humans – with animals, plants, and the inanimate world taking a bit of a back seat.

  • If I remember correctly, the first thing that stood out to me when I was working on my MS in econ was the selfish nature of the field.

    I remember my professor saying – and reading it in the text – that economics only deals with the concerns of humans. Which to some extent is reconciled by the fact that, yeah, someone has to want to consider the needs of, say, green topics, so in that sense it’s a human concern. At the time though, I was put off by observing that statement as a lack of concern until there is a problem.

    As for sustainability, I’m not sure I agree with Floccina. You are confusing leaving oil in the ground with sustainability. Sustainability is imperative. I find that thinking about the extremes helps me understand that there are benefits to sustainability. So, for example, one extreme is a completely dispensable world, entirely driven by the present value of things – this ends up as one large landfill to me, put briefly. The other extreme might be an entirely sustainable world, with a heavy emphasis on the future value of our actions – at the present, this scenario appears very costly (developing the needed institutions and systems) , ensuring that as little waste as possible is produced, that the system of production and consumption is circular (for lack of a better term).

    That said, I can understand that my actions (at the margin) DO make a difference in progressing as a sustainable citizen and making for a better natural world. I do not think it is absurd – maybe, leaving oil in the ground is, but the notion of sustainability certainly is not.

    • Dave

      “I remember my professor saying – and reading it in the text – that economics only deals with the concerns of humans. Which to some extent is reconciled by the fact that, yeah, someone has to want to consider the needs of, say, green topics, so in that sense it’s a human concern. At the time though, I was put off by observing that statement as a lack of concern until there is a problem.”

      Selfish, in what sense? If green in the sense of concern for the planet and all its creatures takes precedence over humanity, is your position defensible? In fact there is already a problem and economists have spotted it.
      For the past several years world food prices have risen. Part of the problem is instituting sustainable energy. Rising food prices have made it hard on the world’s poor. In the developed world there has been a trend towards using food crops such as corn to make gasohol and oil producing plants, such as palm trees to create biodiesel oil that are supposed to be environmentally sustainable. Economists can, using their arcane methods, show that this is not working and demonstrate that it has an unintended negative effect on people, especially the poor. They can perhaps point out economically helpful ways out of these dilemmas. For example, if food is expensive, could poor regions be helped technologically to grow more food and sell it? Call in your economists to do the math. But, will politicians listen? That is the real problem.

      • Gil

        This makes think of Ayn Rand’s reply to “what of the poor?” and her reply was something like “don’t be poor”. A developing society will always be hard to the poor, that is to say to those who are non-productive as opposed to productive people who don’t have much money for the time being. When people gets wealthy their tastes become more expensive and this the cost of living becomes more expensive making life all the more harder for the poor. Gee, how many of us could live in the most expensive cities of the world? Hence people like to say a Westerner can live like a King or Queen in the poorest parts of the world because the cost of living is so low.

        So what if well-to-do Westerners people want to drive ethanol cars in a way that the rich are basically outbidding the poor for what the use of farm land will be (providing there’s no subsidies)? Food becomes more expensive? Aw, too bad. Hence Ayn Rand’s line of “don’t be poor”. After all, the new rich in India and China are similarly screwing their poor because the new rich want the pleasures of eating meat which now means grain that would feed the poor now go to farm animals. Oops! The price of grain goes up when people desire meat to eat! Same thing.

      • Dave

        In response to Gil, I don’t object to economic forces changing peoples circumstances,but for agriculture ,free markets are always altered for the farm lobbies benefit. I did not volunteer to put gasohol into my SUV. For one thing it gets less miles per gallon. There is little or no reduction in greenhouse gasses. This was all mandated by the government. Ayn Rand would not approve.
        In addition government policies prevent the farmers in poor countries from taking advantage of the higher prices.( For example,tariffs and price controls.)

      • Gil

        However I also point out the decision to eat meat has the same effect as ethanol – grains used to feed people either to cars or to animals instead of people. In terms of “what of the poor” people should become vegetarians to bring the price of food down if they truly care about them.

  • David C

    Does this mean we can look forward to an increase in posts on environment/energy issues?

    Floccina, the argument for leaving the oil in the ground has to do with global warming which has nothing to do with the sustainability of oil production itself, but of negative externalities from oil use. The argument surrounding sustainability of oil production is that we should reduce the speed of oil use and transition away from it gradually because if a large percentage of our economy is still dependent on oil when production peaks (which will happen a lot sooner than actually running out of oil) then this will cause large transition costs on the economy. For instance, the gasoline problems of the 70s were caused by a combination of US (not global) oil production peaking, OPEC limiting supply to the US, and price controls.

  • Rebecca Burlingame

    Two issues particularly stick out with me for sustainability. One, the poor generally recycle better than the rich because they have to. Also, how could government even talk about sustainability and then trash perfectly good automobiles just to get a better market for new cars.

  • The argument that the environmental concerns are far from ordinary experience doesn’t resonate with me yet. I’ll think about it more. But I think urban sprawl is very close to me–it’s what’s led to the oversupply of housing in my area and therefore holds my property value down. Energy efficiency isn’t far at all–it’s reflected in my air conditioning and heating bills.

    If you’re saying that most people aren’t willing to think hard enough about systems to realize this relationships, then I might agree. But some of us do think graphically and often about the environment, even if admittedly with a human-centered pink streak, as shown in my examples.

  • Pooping over yourself as infants do is “near”. Learning to use a toilet is “far”. Consider the environmental movement as an effort to potty-train humanity.

  • Aron

    Green is far, everything is clear now,.

  • Sarah

    1. Note that the green problems which were “near” have mostly been solved. People used to suffer directly from coal dust, chemicals that produced birth defects, acid rain, and rivers on fire. Those problems were physically local, and relatively tractable — you just had to regulate industrial production. It was possible to pass that legislation because people cared about the cleanliness and safety of their own surroundings. The environmental problems that remain now are global, uncertain, and long-term, so “green is far” in the 21st century — but it was not far in much of the 20th.

    2. Greens would be the first to tell you that their ideals are far. Have you ever seen Ferngully? The last line is “For our children, and for our children’s children.” The whole green point of view is that we are a species on a planet, and we want the species and the planet to survive without much damage for at least hundreds of years.

    I always used to see things from the far point of view — how could anybody root for humanity’s eventual impoverishment and destruction? More recently I became aware of libertarianism, which is a very close-up view: instead of “do what’s necessary to save the planet,” it’s “don’t do anything which violates the rights of even one individual.” Each perspective seems absolutely right in its own domain, but it depends what focus you put on the telescope.

  • lxm

    It’s important to remember that you are talking about ‘green’ concerns from the perspective of what you find in economic text books and viewed through the oddities of standard economic reasoning. I would be surprising, shocked even, if economics textbooks did not view environmental concerns as anything but pink.

    I agree that environmental concerns are “far.” But that’s far as in farming and not necessarily far as in cosmology. “far” does not mean not real. “far” does not mean ignorable. Fisheries management and other destruction of the commons issues come to mind. So “far” does not mean it’s not manageable today. But that’s not the implication in your comment.

    Remember: “far” today, gone tomorrow.

  • Perplexed in Peoria

    First, you should have included a link to this to explain “pink”.

    Green is almost entirely about diffuse externalities. As it turns out, yes, diffuse externalities (tiny harms to many people) are frequently health issues, hence you may call them “pink” if you wish.

    I have no idea why you would list food locality and animal experiments as “green” except perhaps that you imagine that irrational people tend to be environmentalists. And I don’t see how concern over air purity and urban sprawl could possibly be considered “far” – these are core immediate quality-of-life issues in many parts of this country.

    The remainder of the “green” items on your list can indeed be labeled as “far”. I hope you point out to your class that failure to apply appropriate time discounting to “far” objectives is one important way in which many environmentalists fail Econ 101. On the other hand, I hope that you also try to justify a suggestion (should you be tempted to make one) regarding how the appropriate discount rate should be determined for irremediable environmental harms.

    And, please, before you teach the class, read some history and find out just how bad our air and water were just a few decades ago before people decided to do something about it.

    (About my nym: I’m not really from Peoria, I’m from the Cleveland/Akron OH area.)

  • Surely that wasn’t what “pink” was intended to mean!

    • Perplexed in Peoria

      What did you think it meant?

  • Chris T

    Really, the only truly sustainable path for humanity is the constant advancement of science and technology, which requires constant economic growth over the long term. Straying from this path is suicide.

    Frequently, environmental damage is caused by inefficiencies – resources winding up where you didn’t intend them. Since inefficiency negatively impacts economic growth, eliminating it to the maximum extent possible serves both the interests of the economy and the environment.