Sunday, July 1, 2007

SUV drivers for a greener tomorrow

A week or two ago, my lab received a fresh shipment of printer paper. The boxes were labeled "bright white." The contents, made from recycled paper, were more of a mouldering yellow. They felt like newsprint, shriveled when exposed to even a drop of water, and reduced the apparent contrast of color figures. I'm all in favor of saving the earth, but the voluntary actions of individual consumers are all but irrelevant. Such gestures of self-deprivation are comparable in efficacy to wearing sackcloth and beating your back with a switch. In the face of billions of other individuals who don't personally choose to save the planet by denying themselves consumerist pleasures, any single person's purchasing decisions have a negligible effect. Moreover, the real damage to the planet can come from surprising places. If I read a document printed on recycled paper while eating an orange imported from Spain and grown with inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, how does the damage incurred in the process of producing and shipping that orange compare to that saved by using recycled paper rather than beautiful fresh white paper? My seat on a flight home from Zurich to New York City produces about 1.7 tons of carbon dioxide. How many reams of white paper would I have to use to place a similar burden on the environment?

This is, once again, a case of the tragedy of the commons. So long as our economic system remains structured so that it is in each individual's personal interest to live in an environmentally unsustainable manner, no amount of personal sacrifice will prevent human activity from fundamentally scarring the world in which we live. In fact, attempting to reduce your own impact may make the problem worse in the end, since it masks the full impact of current policies. Nonlinear systems can exhibit strange dynamics. If it is clear that the earth is currently spiraling towards destruction, it will be easier to convince politicians and populaces across the globe to implement broad policies to moderate human impact. A slow descent allows the nay-sayers to invoke the paradox of the heap. If any single year of wanton consumption only pushes us incrementally towards the brink, then we can safely wait until next year to implement strict controls on energy consumption, recycling, greenhouse gases, and the like. If there is any doubt regarding the severity of the problem, then the same people who deny the existence of global warming today will continue to bury their heads in the sand until environmental armageddon sweeps them from their feet. So! Drive an SUV for a greener planet today!