New podcast episode finally out. I interviewed Carson about The Ethics of Locavorism. Essentially, the question is: if we want to be ethical consumers, should locavorism be a priority in our consumption habits? I won’t spoil the answer, but we examine the case for locavorism through the environmental lens, economic lens, and trying to foster communities. Find the RSS feed here, iTunes here.


The political atmosphere surrounding climate change is often excruciating to bear; scientists keep offering dire warnings but politicians can’t seem to agree on what to do, if anything. Governments can try tactics like capping total emissions, investing in alternative fuels, or mandating specific fuel efficiencies. But none of these has seemed to work thus far. Economic theory suggests we can shift the behaviors of consumers and firms to account for the negative effects of carbon by making its use more expensive. Would this “carbon tax” be any more politically feasible than the other alternatives? Will it be too much of a burden? Can we trust the government to implement it? Find out the dirt on carbon taxes and how it stacks up against other efforts to battle climate change.

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I tend to think that people who try their best to help the environment are well-intentioned people who usually aren’t really doing that much to help the environment. I’ve written before about people feeling so good about themselves in terms of helping the environment that they feel entitled to do things that hurt the environment more. The most helpful analogy I have is an obese person going for a 5 minute jog, then feeling so good that they went out and exercised that they eat a triple chocolate cake. One step forward, two steps back. I re-use bags when I go to the grocery store, so I feel entitled to take multiple trans-Atlantic flights every year to get an education I could easily obtain within a couple miles of my house. has a list of 6 socially conscious things that only look like they help:

  1. Driving energy-efficient cars
  2. Eating local
  3. Purchasing reusable bags
  4. Using biofuels
  5. Volunteering overseas
  6. Rescuing oil-covered birds

The site has a pretty good description for each of why people do it and why, in the end, it doesn’t do all that much.

I won’t take any sort of moral high ground against people who make these efforts. I just think it’s necessary to point out the actual results of these actions, instead of just their intentions.

A Carnegie Mellon study shows that only 11% of food’s carbon footprint is from transportation. So why do people focus so much on eating local? By worrying about the firecracker of the problem (transportation) are people ignoring the dynamite of the problem (food that is made in an energy efficient way)?

The Chicago Tribune ran a front page story today about the costs and benefits of the “locavore” movement. It describes the growing number of people who are trying very hard to eat locally: food produced within a 100-300 mile radius of where they live. The jury is still out on which foods actually make an environmental impact by being produced locally.

I think it should be pointed out why eating locally might be bad for the environment over food produced thousands of miles away: growing raspberries in Illinois (where, to my knowledge, they are not naturally occurring and cannot stand the harsh weather) can take a lot of energy. To withstand the weather or non-ideal soil conditions, extra energy needs to be put into things like greenhouses or fertilizers. Overall, this can take more energy than just getting the raspberries from their natural environment and shipping them to Chicago.

People also might buy local for things like feelings of fellowship, community, or just supporting your friends (all of which I think are absolute bullshit). And although some studies seem to be coming out shortly that measure the possibly trivial and possibly huge difference buying local makes, the environmental aspect seems to be quite a firecracker characteristic.

Often times, people engage in actions that tend to make a trivial difference in their end goal instead of focusing on the things that actually make a significant difference. I’m going to cheat on my wife, use the Lord’s name in vain, lie to tons of people; but I’m also going to donate lots of money to the Catholic Church and go to mass every Sunday. I’m going to go to a restaurant and order a double bacon cheeseburger with everything on it and get a large chocolate milkshake; but the milkshake is going to be made with skim milk.

The point I’m trying to make by these scenarios is that by being conscientious of those trivial acts, people feel like they are doing their part and actually getting closer to reaching their end goals. Sure, ceteris paribus, going to mass might make you a better Catholic and getting that skim milk might make you lose weight. But by doing those trivial things, people mentally justify actions that actually have a much bigger impact.

I was discussing this sort of idea with a friend a few days ago. He travels a ton: he went to high school on a different continent than his home country and goes to college far away from his home country.

Traveling contributes CO2 up the wazoo to the global environment. So will taking shorter showers, reusing plastic grocery bags, decreasing toilet paper thickness, or buying organic really make that much of a difference? All else equal, these actions are positive things. But by doing these very small things, is my friend indirectly justifying his incredibly high-carbon lifestyle to himself and not actually helping the environment? By focusing on things that account for 0.00000… % of his overall carbon footprint, is he incorrectly thinking that he can continue to travel so much yet still help the environment? I sure think so. I imagine someone who is trying to lose weight that just went on a 10 minute run: I can eat this double cheesecake; I owe it to myself, I just ran for 10 minutes!

The point is that there are things that make a small difference (firecrackers) and things that make a big difference (dynamite). If all we think about are the firecrackers, we forget that we are all responsible for some dynamite.

Perhaps this is somewhat of a digression, but I think my thoughts about general environmental activism should be mentioned here, especially because my friend admittedly takes the moral high ground on matters like this and believes people who don’t do the small things that decrease environmental impact “don’t get it.” We all do things we don’t need. In fact, we don’t need much. Here’s a quotation, courteousy of William Eric, regarding marketing and how it encourages people to buy things they don’t need:

We, as one agency, plead guilty. Advertising does sell people things they don’t need. Things like television sets, automobiles, catsup, mattresses, cosmetics, ranges, refrigerators, and so on and on.

People don’t really need these things. People don’t really need art, music, literature, newspapers, historians, wheels, calendars, philosophy, or, for that matter, critics of advertising, either.

All people really need is a cave, a piece of meat and, possibly, a fire.

The complex thing we call civilization is made up of luxuries. An eminent philosopher of our time has written that great art is superior to less art in the degree that it is “life-enhancing.” Perhaps something of the same thing can be claimed for the products that are sold through advertising.

They enhance life, to whatever degree they can.

-Young and Rubicam Advertising

We all like things we don’t need, things that aren’t meat (or food, more simply), a cave, or fire. Eating meat is terrible for the environment, but people do it because they say “I’m selfish, I like meat.” Similarly, people say “I like traveling, so I’m going to do it, even if it’s terrible for the environment.” People also say “I like my long hot showers,” “being lazy and not turning off the lights when I leave the house,” and even “my SUV isn’t really practical but god dammit it’s fun to drive so I’m going to do it.”

All of these things are things we don’t need. So before anyone takes the moral high ground and criticizes anyone else for not doing enough for the environment and engaging in conspicuous consumption, think about your life and think about all the things you have that you don’t need and are bad for the environment: that iPod, art, going to a college away from home when there is likely one closer, sports, watching movies, alcohol, barbecues, really comfortable chairs, hair gel, smoking pot, anything related to music, earrings, literature, etc.

In conclusion, if we are really to stop any sort of catastrophic climate change, we need to stop focusing so much on the firecrackers and start worrying about the dynamite. This is admittedly a stance that is fairly recently developed and ripe for criticism and I am willing to take any sort comments pointing out holes in my thinking.

Most people are willing to sacrifice something to help the environment. But different choices make different impacts. Not eating meat would do more to help cut carbon emissions than recycling, reusing plastic bags, and riding your bike to work everyday. Most omnivores wouldn’t give up their meaty diets. SUVs are often a target of people dedicated to improving the environment. Often ridiculed as being impractical, SUVs can easily be substituted with more fuel efficient cars. But are people willing to give up their dogs – perhaps more detrimental than SUVs – in order to help the environment? I’m going to guess the answer is no.

This guy was on the IPCC and is a distinguished professor at M.I.T. Because of this, I’m going to assume he’s pretty credible. So why is he contradicting everything else I seem to hear? Maybe it’s like if a biology professor at Princeton told me evolution was a myth: I’d just think he was an exceptional kook and irrelevant compared to the other 99.99% of people in his field. Either way, something fishy is going on. My best bet is that global warming, while a problem that needs to be urgently solved, is not as catastrophic as movies like The Day After Tomorrow make it out to be.

While the media might be focusing on the death of Patrick Swayze, we’d like to draw your attention to the death of a man who was a truly influential and positive force in the world. Norman Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” and winner of the 190 nobel peace prize, died Saturday at the age of 95.

Borlaug’s accomplishments involved the tremendous work he did in revolutionizing agriculture. By recognizing that organic farming could not exclusively feed the world’s population, Borlaug developed genetically modified foods. These foods, among other things, could resist disease, had a higher yield with fixed inputs, and utilized “dwarfing”.

The results were higher yields and food being grown in places where it wasn’t before – more people were eating because there was more food. As the Wall Street Journal points out:

Today, famines—whether in Zimbabwe, Darfur or North Korea—are politically induced events, not true natural disasters.

Borlaug’s only obstacle to universally renowned heroism comes from environmentalists. Some environmentalists claimed that growing more food would mean roads would be built over wilderness. I don’t think I need to address the elitism of that argument. But also, because of the unknown consequences of using chemicals like non-organic pesticides and genetically modifying foods, environmentalists saw Borlaug as a figure who introduced dangerous food into every agricultural industry in the world.

It’s true that we don’t know all the consequences of Borlaug’s work – just like we don’t yet know the consequences of society staring at computer screens for 7 hours a day. But we need to weigh the possible risks with the enormous benefits. Borlaug was credited with saving the lives of 1 billion people. Not a typo – billion. Those are 1 billion people that would have starved to death. As Borlaug said, it’s easy for people to criticize his work for being possibly dangerous because they all have “full bellies”.

Globalization and rising incomes, critics charge, necessarily yield more environmental harm. In In Defense of Globalization, Jagdish Bhagwati makes an argument for the opposite – that growth, measured by increased incomes, can actually help the environment. This might seem counter-intuitive. After all, as we make more money, we consume more, which means we cause more pollution and create more trash.

But think about it for a second. As people satisfy their basic needs of food, shelter, water, etc., they become less concerned with an extra dollar and care more about things like parks and pretty things.

This bell curve, essentially a Kuznets curve for the environment, demonstrates the idea:

Gene Grossman and Alan Krueger, two economists, found that peak sulfur dioxide levels in various cities around the world were when median income was around $5,000 to $6,000. Once a city made more than this, the locals not only switched to cleaner technology but also became more concerned with the natural environment. Bhagwati adds:

Several historical examples can also be adduced: the reduction in smog today compared to what the industrial revolution produced in European cities in the nineteenth century, and the reduced deforestation of the United States compared to a century ago.

One need only look to China, where pollution is horrible but arguably necessary to get to a certain level of wealth in order to “clean up”. Similarly, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Scandanavian countries all have very impressive environmental records; these developed countries, over centuries, have reached a point in their GDP where clean water/air and national parks are more desirable than 50 more bucks. However, the marginal difference in income for developed countries is relatively huge for developing countries, so the developing countries are more willing to put up with a degree of environmental harm.

While I personally agree with the idea that growth can help the environment, I think the lingering question is whether that “peak” level of things like CO2 is permissible or whether we must stop pollution from even reaching there.

The Copenhagen Consensus, headed by Bjorn Lomborg and featuring several nobel prize winners, has evaluated the effectiveness of various climate change-fighting measures in comparison to their costs. They ranked their findings in the following table:


I’m sure the report has gotten some valid criticisms, so I’m not taking their findings as indisputable facts or anything. But the low score for carbon taxes surprises me most. The “adaptation” idea also intrigues me.