Sunday, September 3, 2017

The answer is listening

In this post, I intend to address a divisive issue. I chose this issue because I think it is important and because I think there are some ideas that need to be part of our conversation on the topic. I also chose it because it serves as an illustration of sort of war I wrote about as part of my New Year's resolution.

In the case of this particular issue, I believe that there are important concerns on both sides of the argument. I imagine that most of my friends will have an opinion already; in most cases, a strong opinion. As such, I imagine that most of my readers will disagree with at least some of the things I write here. I invite you to pause whenever you come across something you don't agree with and consider carefully what about it you do and don't agree with. Are there truths in the argument? Are there elements of it with which you agree?

My predicament

Exercise is important to me. I like pushing myself. I work better and sleep better when I stay in shape. I like being able to do hard things. Like many people, I prefer to exercise outside. However, I am also sensitive to air quality problems.

I'm not entirely sure if I actually suffer more from air quality problems than other people do or if I just notice them more. I sing quite a bit, so a little irritation can lead to considerable pain. Also, my work requires fairly extreme concentration much of the time and even a little sniffle makes an enormous difference in my productivity.

The area where I live is surrounded by mountains, which means that local air pollution doesn't leave easily. Even though traffic here doesn't compare to that of the world's major metropolitan areas, the air gets pretty bad during rush hour every day. It's worse in the winter, when a temperature inversion traps the smog.

On a personal level, there really isn't much I can do about it. I try to find ways of reducing my negative impact on the environment: I chain trips together and go to considerable effort to arrange carpools. I work from home on some days to further reduce pollution (and to save time). I pay a small fee to my power company to purchase energy from renewable sources. However, the air pollution problem happens because lots of people pollute a little bit (and a few pollute a lot). I believe that my efforts are the morally correct choice for me to take but I also recognize that they won't solve the problem.

I also worry that I might not be doing enough; I don't even own a bike, although I'd like to. One of the principal factors that has held me back is that I don't want to breathe the smog and make my respiratory issues worse. I don't love that I contribute to the problem by driving instead but the alternative doesn't seem reasonable to me.

Why people pollute

I think that most pollution happens because people are just doing the best they can. It's easy to miss it; we don't see the emissions from our cars or our homes (unless they're truly awful). We do, however, see how much time we save by driving instead of walking or taking public transit.

Most of us who have time to debate about the environment have enough income that we can choose to do things in an environmentally friendly way; for example, we can afford to buy cars that run efficiently. This saves us money on operating and saves us from the hassle of shopping around for a place that will let us squeak by on an emissions inspection. We might even be able to work while riding public transit. If that is our experience, we probably don't know what it's like to be living paycheck to paycheck and needing that car to get to a job that's across town but that at least pays the bills. We make the decisions we do largely because that's what our parents or society taught us is normal or acceptable.

The issue of air pollution is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons; each person acting reasonably in his or her own frame of reference results in everyone being poorly served. Crucially, unregulated capitalism will not (and cannot) solve this particular dilemma when the people concerned cannot or will not self-regulate.

Proposed solutions

In an attempt to solve the real problem of air pollution, many people favor laws or other regulations that would prohibit certain behaviors or that would make them more costly. Some examples of these efforts are state-mandated emissions tests and gas taxes. They also include public transportation, which is principally paid for by taxes in most systems in the USA. It is worth noting that the ratios in the linked article include operating costs but not construction costs, so they are higher than they would be if fares were compared with total costs.

Another approach is environmentalism by morality; when we discover that a behavior causes problems en masse, we determine that that behavior is not morally or socially acceptable. The hope is that this moral onus will discourage people from behaving in an environmentally irresponsible manner and that air quality (or the environmental concern in question) will improve.

Problems with proposed solutions

Environmentalism as we know it is a question of outcomes, not of methods. The end goal is a healthy environment. While this is certainly an important goal, it is worth asking what means we are willing to use to achieve it. Because environmental goals tend to require action (or inaction) on the part of the majority of people in a society, achieving these goals usually requires measures that make some people uncomfortable.

One common criticism of environmentalist policies is that they tend to violate the principle of the federal system of government: decisions should be left to individuals where possible, then to local governments, then to state governments, and only to the federal government in the last resort. In general, environmentalists are very concerned about the environment – and rightfully so. In many cases, they are either unconcerned by or in favor of a strong central government. In many other cases, their concern for the environment is stronger than their concern for decentralized government. Any of these positions is reasonable and can be defended; unfortunately, many people are unwilling to engage in a healthy debate on the point. The typical argument is that we can either toe the environmentalist line or we will all die. Even if this argument is correct, it is dismissive of and disdainful to real concerns that people have about the way we govern ourselves.

Similarly, there is a tendency for environmentalists to want stricter measures than some other people believe are necessary. Even simple regulations like requiring compliance with emissions standards adds a cost in time and money to each person who drives. In the case of people living in poverty, these costs can be crippling. In a more general sense, laws and regulations proscribe freedoms. They may do more good than harm; we have laws for a reason. However, an unwillingness to debate the point serves no one.

On the other hand

People who oppose environmentalist policy also tend to take a hard line. Some people oppose every tax on principle; others simply oppose taxes that cost them money. Some oppose government overreach; others have personal reasons for wanting to do certain things. I have a close friend who really likes tinkering with and driving automobiles; although he's concerned about the environment, I'm sure he would be very bent out of shape if we were to outlaw the internal combustion engine. There are, of course, people who just want to make easy money by exploiting resources in environmentally unfriendly ways.

In many cases, these objections to environmental policies completely ignore the valid concerns about the world in which we live. There is more carbon in the atmosphere than there was ten years ago and the polar ice caps are melting. On a more personal and immediate level, I have to be careful about when I run to avoid permanent lung damage. However principled our stance on government is, the fact remains that the invisible hand is not guiding us wisely in some cases. Those of us who ignore environmentalism for their ideological hobbyhorses are just as wrong as the extremists who oppose them.


Happily, there is a better way. I believe that there are solutions to be found. Some of them will come from research: we can discover better sources of renewable energy and improve our batteries. We may even be able to improve carbon sequestration techniques, which could help us to remove the atmospheric carbon dioxide that has been accumulating. Other solutions may come from more efficient city design, autonomous vehicles. It may (or may not) require us as a society to decide that some luxuries, like owning our own vehicles, are not worth the price.

Whatever the solutions are, they will not be found in vitriol or extremism. They will be found in a spirit of cooperation. We are one human family, living in a world whose size seems to be decreasing constantly. We breathe each other's air and we impact each other's lives. If we all work together to do so wisely and responsibly, we can enjoy a marvelous existence on this beautiful planet.