The environmental contrarian
No simple decisions
Published: Monday, September 2, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 2, 2013 18:09
This is the first in a series of articles in which I attempt to show that popular environmentalism suffers from several important shortcomings. If the aim of our environmental effort is to improve the quality of the global environment, it can benefit from a critical view of our actions and intuition. We should be willing to acknowledge the innate biases of the human mind and our tendency to weigh salient environmental impacts more strongly than seemingly mundane ones.
As applies to all my columns, I do not profess to have all the answers. I simply hope to illuminate an additional piece to the intricate jigsaw puzzle of informed environmental decision making.
This week, I’ll show that we have a tendency to overlook certain sets of facts when they confirm certain preconceived notions. These mental shortcuts simplify our decision-making process and can be useful in many, but not all, situations. For example, take a popular Facebook meme that rides the coattails of popular disdain for disposable utensils. The meme reads, “It is pretty amazing that our society has reached a point where the effort needed to extract oil from the ground, ship it to a refinery, turn it into plastic, shape it appropriately, truck it to a store, buy it and bring it home, is considered to be less effort than what it takes to just wash the spoon when you are done with it.”
The above meme suggests it is obvious the environmental impacts of plastic utensils are immense while the impacts of reusable utensils are non-existent. In reality, any choice of utensils (even none at all all) will have a unique set of environmental impacts. In the case of stainless silverware, for example, society has to mine ore, transport and refine it, reduce it with coking coal to produce steel and forge the steel into real silverware. We also must wash the silverware with scarce water resources, purified with harsh chemicals and delivered to our house with energy-intensive pumping infrastructure. We consume energy to run our dishwashers and even more to heat the water. Nutrient-laden dish detergents also contribute to harmful algal blooms and dead zones in our waterways. Hopefully, it is now clear that reusable utensils are not free of environmental impact.
My point here is definitely not that disposable utensils are a better environmental choice than reusable utensils. Rather, my point is that even “better” environmental alternatives have their own set of impacts, which in turn, should be factored into our decision making process. It is not sufficient to choose dogmatically against the most harmful options without weighing the relative merits of competing alternatives against each other. Ultimately, if we fail to acknowledge the harm from even “benign” options, we will not be able to improve upon them.
If you take nothing else away from this article, just remember that determining environmental impacts is an exercise never as straightforward as it appears. Everything we do has an environmental impact; sometimes we just have to look in unlikely places to find them.