2011-12-02

A Perspective on Environmentalism

My Assertions
As a human being and an economist, I assert the following:
  1. Time is a valuable resource that is worthy of conserving if we want to make the most of it.
  2. Money is a valuable resource that is worthy of conserving if we want to make the most of it.
  3. Making the most of our money and our time allows us to have more of the things we want, including more vital things like food and medicine.
I would be surprised if any environmentalist - or anyone at all, for that matter - objected to the above assertions.

I Accept the Following
The following are a list of beliefs held by environmentalists with which I entirely agree.
  1. Clean is better than dirty; less pollution is better than more pollution.
  2. More bio-diversity is better than less.
Trade-Offs
I believe almost all reasonable people agree with all of the above assertions. Anyone who feels otherwise is at best irrational and at worst insane. I think we can all agree on that much. Obviously, where self-proclaimed "environmentalists" diverge from those who do not proclaim themselves to be "environmentalists" is in weighing all of these assumptions against each other.

For example, which is preferable: A year of your life or a California Redwood tree? If you had the opportunity to, say, gain a promotion at work at the expense of one acre of tropical rainforest, what would you take? The more favorably you weight the rainforest, the more we can describe you as "an environmentalist." 

If you could permanently feed one starving child for every 5-gallon bucket of radioactive water you poured into Lake Superior, how many buckets would you pour?

Keep in mind, the answers to these questions are entirely subjective. Some people would never chop down an acre of rainforest under any circumstances, and would rather pour zero buckets and let children starve. That is a valid perspective.

Who Gets What
In economics, we routinely state that we live in a world with limited resources and unlimited human need. Based on what we human beings need, we produce things. 

When we needed furniture, we used to go into the woods, chop down some trees, haul some lumber back home, and build the furniture. That we now face some level of deforestation is a predictable result of our need for lumber. That we exist as human beings means we produce some waste that has to be thrown away in either a garbage dump or a sewer of some sort.

Every aspect of human life requires some combination of time, money, and natural resources. The very best aspects of human life require the minimum amount of time, money and natural resources. But competing technologies and methods cost different amounts of time, money, and resources. So, we all make choices for ourselves about how much of each should be minimized or maximized. 

Conclusion
Environmentalists tend to minimize environmental impacts at the expense of time and money. Nonetheless, they should keep in mind that by neglecting to minimize money or time expenditures, their actions adversely affect others. 

Time and money are resources worth minimizing, too. Technologies that save us time and money at the expense of the environment feed children and make our lives more convenient. Non-environmentalists are "environmentalists of time and money." We believe that the starving children of the world are best served by modern technologies that free up time and money that can be spent on feeding them.

I believe that if more people understood these trade-offs, human society would be very different.