Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What makes a Green?

In my recent reading on environmental issues I have encountered an awful lot of crazy rhetoric.  One very large component of the rhetoric consists of categorizing one's opponents into specific groups with the obvious intention of making their views seem less legitimate.  One of the groups with the most confusing and variable definition sets is Greens.  What exactly makes someone part of the Green group and what characteristics does that group have?

I thought about this and considered for myself what a person would have to do for me to lump them into the Green group so I could get some sort of sense of it.  I came up with an idea to differentiate a Green - a priority on environmental issues above that which an economist would strictly measure.  For example, if an economist told us that the total economic costs of an environmental mess would be 100 M dollars and we could prevent it for 110 M dollars there is an argument to be made that we have made a bad bargain.  I don't personally buy that argument because I feel that there is value in leaving our environment as it is above and beyond the costs so I would count myself a Green.  I should note that the cost above *must* reflect the total cost of human suffering for the comparison to have any meaning, and yes, we can and do put a cost on human suffering.  If we actually thought it was priceless we would spend a lot more money as a society on safer roadways and a lot less on things like gigantic TV sets.

A good further question is do I count someone in the Green category if they claim to have the viewpoint outlined above but consistently act in a way that does not support it?  If someone says they care about the environment but owns several non hybrid vehicles and regularly takes long haul flights (one of which can be the pollution equivalent to a year of normal driving!) can they realistically be counted?  I think the most difficult part here is the problem of knowledge - if a person who thinks they are Green flies a lot but has no idea that this is such an incredibly environmentally unfriendly act do we excuse the behaviour?  It is easy for anyone who is in the position to take such flights to find out what exactly the best ways to reduce their personal contribution to emissions is and so clearly they have either not bothered (hardly an excuse) or they simply decide to go ahead anyhow.

Of course the boundaries of the Green moniker on internet forums are not remotely so clear.  Greens are evil since they hate business, Greens are the people actually working to save the planet against the evil megacorporations, Greens are against anyone who questions their dogma of environmental collapse, Greens are open to the scientific data that suggests a problem before business is willing to admit that they *must* change.  None of these ideas is particularly correct, and yet there are surely people who count themselves as Greens who fill each of these molds.

Slinging labels around is not a new thing.  It has always been effective practice to label your opponents as being part of a group that is known or suspected to be doing terrible things even if the label is inaccurate.  Enabling listeners to quickly put a person or idea in an unattractive box is a good first step to getting them to dismiss that person or idea out of hand.  Whether your label is conservative, liberal, Green, denier, skeptic or sell-out a preconceived set of characteristics is lumped in and the exchange and debate of ideas is weakened.  A terrible state of affairs, but nothing new, and not likely to end.


  1. Too complicated...

    A green: Someone who spends a significant amount percentage of their luxury resource (in time & money) on the environment above the effect that spending has on them.

    A taxi driver who buys a Prius, but drives 300,000km/year? Not a green.
    A soccer mom who buys a Prius and drives 30,000km/year? A green.

    A computer company which recycles old machines, but has to otherwise pay for waste disposal? Not a green.
    An individual who recycles old machines, and pays the junk yard 20$ to do so (instead of tossing in the trash). Possibly a green (contributes anyhow).

    People have a limited amount of luxury resource to spend, as defined as the amount left over after achieving a baseline standard of living for their socio-economic class. I would suggest that once someone is dedicating more than 25% of that luxury resource to environmental causes, they're "green". (Totally arbitrary figure.)

    Of course, no private enterprise should ever be green, that would be doing an injustice to their shareholders. Any green actions by private enterprise should by definition be "not-green" or "faux-green" (taupe? bondi?)

    It is the role of government to create a system in which purely selfish motives induce private enterprise to function in an environmentally neutral way, by appropriately attributing externalities to their source. (In general, I consider the attribution of externalities to be one of the primary functions of government.)

  2. Have you found any evidence to indicate hybrids are actually pro-environment?

  3. As far as I know hybrids, by producing drastically fewer emissions, are a better environmental choice. They cost more to buy and presumably to dispose of but the fuel and emissions numbers are so large over the course of their life that I am confident they are a good idea. They are of course a much better idea the more driving you do since the costs are one time and the benefits scale with use.

    I do agree that government has a huge priority to make sure negative externalities are appropriately costed. That is the basic reason that glorifying the free market is such a foolish idea - free markets create all kinds of problems through uncontrolled externalities but a free market which has these issues (among some others) controlled by the government is actually very powerful and useful.

  4. I only said that a person who spends significant percentage of luxury resources on environmental causes is a green, not that it must be spent productively. :) The vast majority of hybrids are massively more environmentally destructive than a 1982 GEO metro. (If you _really_ want to save the environment, don't buy a new hybrid, buy a used econo-box. Just being used is an almost insurmountable environmental advantage.)

    I really should have clarified that further to say "spending for environmental causes *after factoring out any status benefits*". I suspect many/most people buy Priuses (Prii?) because it's trendy.

  5. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

    The first two are *drastically* better than the last one, just as Snidely says.

  6. The thing is you need to account for the costs to generate the energy that goes into your hybrid. Batteries may not generate pollution on use but they can on charging. I just remember reading years ago that hybrids were actually worse than the better normal cars and was wondering if you'd seen anything to contradict that. (Do they use solar power? I don't know a thing about cars, really...)

  7. Okay, we need to talk about cars. You are mixing up a bunch of different technologies here.

    Electric cards that plug in and then drive around are good at relocating pollution to the power station which is good if all your power comes from a solar/wind plant, but doesn't help much if you are just drawing on power that comes from a coal plant. These are extreme niche right now, not commercially viable.

    Solar powered cars have been demonstrated and tested in a few situations but are not remotely economically or practically viable. They are a curiosity only.

    Hybrids are cars that have an onboard battery that is charged using braking as an energy source as well as extra energy from the engine. Essentially they store energy when possible and release it when necessary. They are more expensive and presumably more resource intensive to build but do not require plugging in or any other additional input. They have *massive* improvements in both efficiency and emissions over normal vehicles. Hybrid cars are getting quite normal these days, though they are certainly still a small part of the market.

  8. To answer your question more concretely: Electric cars don't seem useful at all in terms of overall pollution but do allow you to relocate it. Hybrid cars do reduce pollution and are better but they cost more.

  9. Fair enough. I thought hybrid cars were an electric/gas combo and not a gas car making better use of kinetic energy to charge a battery.

  10. Electric cars: stupid (if for green reasons, I like them because they're creepy quiet).

    Storing and transporting electricity to the car costs, from end-to-end, about 60% of the total energy produced. Assuming that the energy is produced by an oil-fired power plant (and not a much dirtier coal-fired plant), it has about half the environmental impact per Joule. It pretty much nets out.

    The only real benefit is that electric engines are currently crappy enough that they have to make the care more efficient in overall energy usage (through aerodynamics & weight) to simply perform well and have a usable range. Ironically, technological improvements are going to make electric cars *less* environmentally friendly. (Awesome irony!)

    Of course, it also relocates the environmental cost, and could be much better if the origin electrical power comes from an environmentally friendly source. It would also be much better if you had a Mr. Fusion™ engine, or you could harness up your car to invisible flying unicorns. Both are about as likely in the next decade.

    Hybrids, at the very least, have a huge environmental advantage over electric cars. They carry the same economic incentives (and penalties) as traditional vehicles, so taxes and fees on gasoline for the purposes of influencing transportation behaviour still apply, and taxes levied on gasoline to support public transit and roads remain in force. Also, electric power to the grid is heavily (and justifiably) subsidized, but cars being on that same network would mess things up severely. (A Chevy Volt, driven by the average commuter, uses more electricity than an average household!)

  11. What I've learned here is that Snidely is in favour of running over the hearing impaired.

  12. Ziggyny, hybrids are called hybrids because they do have a hybrid gas/electric engine. But yes, all that electricity is generated by harnessing energy that would normally be dissipated uselessly by a normal gas car.

    Whether or not hybrid cars are really that much better than non-hybrids depends on what year you look at. A few years ago there were a lot of hybrids that really weren't more fuel efficient than the best non-hybrids available. I guess hybrid manufacturers have since figured out what they are doing, because looking at the EPA the fuel efficiency of some models has increased over 50% in the last two years alone, and non-hybrids don't compete at all anymore.