What are our personal obligations toward the environment?

by on September 11, 2008 at 6:38 am in Philosophy | Permalink

From the hum of the city, while pondering fossil fuel consumption, Megan McArdle writes:

I understand that people’s desires for large houses in leafy suburbs
are every bit as valid as my ardent desire to live near the peaceful
hum of traffic.  Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a policy that
effects everyone equally, and the painful job of being an adult is
doing things we don’t like because they’re the morally right thing to
do.

From my mid-sized house in a leafy suburb, I will assume that a) environmental concerns are real, b) we will fall short of fixing those problems through public policy (Megan uses the word policy but mostly her post is about personal obligation), and c) we do in fact have personal obligations to limit consumption.  The question remains how much fun we can have.  Fossil fuel consumption isn’t necessarily the area of optimal sacrifice.  For instance here are two other options:

1. Send money and other forms of aid to the victims and future victims.

2. Have fewer children than otherwise, if only in the stochastic sense (e.g., don’t move to Alaska at a young age).  Climate change is not the last environmental burden we will place on the world and probably not even the biggest such burden, but fewer people does mean less human pressure along many environmental dimensions, present and future.

Assuming that restriction is indeed called for, either of those might be more personally imperative than:

3. Fly and drive less and buy a smaller house.

Most people focus on #3 because lower energy consumption makes them feel less affiliated with the particular problem at hand.  But instrumentally speaking at a low discount rate #2 is more potent and at any discount rate #1 can be a more effective form of aid to the victims.

In this setting, I can see a few theories of our duties:

a. Do that which yields the highest net social return if only you do it.

b. Do that which yields the highest net social return if many people were to do it.

c. Cut back on your activities which most closely resemble aggressive interference into the lives of others.

d. Perform the action most likely to influence the behavior of others.

Belief in "a" favors sending money.  Belief in "b" favors having fewer children.  Belief in "c" favors restricting your driving and flying.  I am not sure which course of action follows from belief in "d."

You might think that you should do some mix of 1, 2, and 3,  But if your MU schedules are sufficiently flat, an argument from Steven Landsburg implies it is optimal to concentrate your sacrifice in a single "best returns" project.  So it may suffice to pick either 1, 2, or 3 and do it very well.

The bottom line: Perhaps I should call this blog post An Apology for Me.

1 J Thomas September 11, 2008 at 7:23 am

By the iron laws of economics, if you sacrifice to reduce your consumption all you accomplish is to make scarce resources cheaper for others to consume. All the resources that go on the market *will* be consumed at some price, if there’s *anybody* who wants them.

I propose a large tax on fossil fuels, with 100% of the tax distributed equally to voters. If gasoline costs $10/gallon and you get $300/month from the government that you can use to pay for your gasoline, you aren’t hurting that much. But every gallon you don’t buy is $10 you can use for something else.

The more fossil fuels you use, the more money you pay that subsidises the people who use less.

Much better than just not doing it and making the price cheaper for those who do.

2 Nancy Lebovitz September 11, 2008 at 7:31 am

Channeling Julian Simon here: If fewer people means less specialization and less inventiveness, fewer people might not be the best choice.

On the other hand (speaking as me rather than as JS) there’s presumably an optimum population size for a given tech level, and I have no idea if we’re near it.

3 Millian September 11, 2008 at 7:45 am

If you believe in a long-run growth model with increasing returns to scale from research, it makes sense to have lots of children and encourage them to become scientists and engineers…

4 thehova September 11, 2008 at 8:42 am

Tyler shouldn’t think about this too much. This is exactly why conservatives are happier than progressives.

I support pleasure and beauty for their own sake. A large yard gives me that. Therefore, I am happy. End of story.

5 Walt French September 11, 2008 at 8:52 am

A question of welfare economics, no?

Making some assumptions about people’s talents, I’d guess the best use of our energies would be to ensure that Pareto efficiency rules. A likely step in that direction would be to help manage the pricing mechanisms for carbon, based on the assumption (a good, but imperfect one, I think) that every person of the world has equal claim to a non-baked life. Since carbon does the cooking, and since we all produce carbon a world transfer mechanism is appropriate: I, who travel frequently, pay the Brazilian whose forests sequester all the carbon I release, a price that can clear the net carbon generation.

Right now, almost any reasonable carbon “tax” would NOT incent others enough to sequester carbon quickly enough, but as a start, would slow down generation. Some investments in pilot projects, etc., would be valuable in speeding the day that we reach an equilibrium.

6 Parke September 11, 2008 at 9:35 am

Don’t call the post “an apology.” Too final. Call it “a work in progress.” I have been following MR for a long time, and sense some change on this moral question. Option 1 (and the related option of buying offsets) is okay if the contribution stands on its own merits but its’ a cop-out as an ethical answer to environmental problems, option 2 I can’t preach about (have two kids). Option 3 is hopeless if it requires real hardship for privileged people, but what if it doesn’t? Let’s market option 3 better by saying: “Option 3. Learn over time to enjoy and appreciate low-impact goods and services, move to a smaller home near public transportation at the next convenient relocation, treasure high-impact activities such as world travel as rare treats, and steadily reduce climate impact from each year to the next.”

7 floccina September 11, 2008 at 9:40 am

Mid-sized house

Mid-sized house for a human, for a human in a developed country, for an American?

Begin sarcasm

I believe that everyone should consume only up to the level that I do or maybe a little more. If they consume much more than I do I will call them pigs. I call it Floccina’s law of environmental relativity.

End sarcasm

We humans have been successfully improving the environment for humans since man first purposefully planted seeds. I see no end to that improvement. Perhaps if one would like to speed that advance one would invest in science.

So don’t worry, be happy.

8 mpkomara September 11, 2008 at 9:43 am

Your assumptions (a), (b) and (c) are always the same. Why not weight them by probability or importance?

(c) makes me uneasy. I think it is strange to talk about obligations to environments, but it is natural to think about obligations to my stomach or my children.

9 david September 11, 2008 at 9:58 am

Eat less meat: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7600005.stm

From a public policy point of view: tax fuel/energy more (and tax income and capital gains correspondingly less)…that will drive up the cost of heating/cooling big houses, driving from suburbs, eating energy-intensive foods like meat, and generally raise the cost of having the marginal child. It seems so obvious, why do you never hear it talked about?

10 Person September 11, 2008 at 10:10 am

@liberty: That doesn’t work either. Eventually the economy will grow so that the higher consumption makes up for the more efficient consumption in the aggregate (exactly the situation with respect to the US and USSR!). Then what?

11 liberalarts September 11, 2008 at 10:19 am

Here is a question that I am too lazy to look up, but maybe someone here knows. With all the talk of Alaska in the last two weeks in general and Tyler’s post here in particular, it strikes that Alaska is subsidizing larger families by sending $3,269 to each person each year, and I would think that Alaska family sizes should all else equal be larger. For a family in the 25% marginal federal tax bracket, that is equal to about an extra $13,000 personal exemption per child on top of the federal personal exemption and child tax credit. Everything else equal, that should increase family size in Alaska, but everything else is never exactly equal. Are Alaskan families larger?

12 fmb September 11, 2008 at 10:53 am

To what extent does voluntarily limiting consumption exacerbate your (b), the problem of falling short of fixing probs via public policy?

Didn’t this blog report on someone’s idea to refuse to donate organs without pay in order to hasten the day when a (presumed by him) beneficial market comes into existence?

Maybe the ethical thing to do is to treat prices as reflective of costs in order to hasten the day when (and/or degree to which) public policy makes them that way.

Or maybe this is self-serving nonsense. I haven’t figured out how to evaluate the magnitude of this effect (help welcomed).

13 Milan September 11, 2008 at 11:07 am

It’s not that it’s manifestly impossible to do these things in a low-carbon way, it’s just that doing so is too difficult and expensive for the huge majority of people to do at this time. Continent-crossing electric bullet trains powered by renewable energy would be great, but they are not available to those trying to cross North America today.

Given the total capacity of the planet to absorb greenhouse gasses, it may be fundamentally impossible for the number of people alive today to ever do these kinds of things sustainably. As such, responding seriously to the threat of climate change requires pretty significant personal sacrifices and, to a considerable extent, a reduced expectation of how much energy-intensive stuff we can aspire to do in the course of our lives. Building a low-carbon society is a way of taking back the freedoms lent to us by hydrocarbon energy, but it definitely remains to be seen whether equivalent per-capita potential will be created by such means during the lifetime of anyone alive today.

More:

http://www.sindark.com/wiki/index.php?title=Major_climate_change_issues#Global_equity

14 bgc September 11, 2008 at 11:16 am

Any advice to smart and considerate people to have fewer children or no children must contend with the fact that intelligence and personality are substantially hereditary.

15 J Thomas September 11, 2008 at 11:20 am

It doesn’t help to put your kids through engineering school unless there are sufficient jobs for engineers.

A long time ago I suggested that my sister become an ecologist, because we had a lot of ecology work that needed to be done and so we’d need people to do it. She did. But it turned out we simply didn’t pay for that work and she couldn’t make a living at it. She looked at the big picture and decided what needed to be done was international ecological law. She went to law school and got her degree intending to do that. But it turned out there were not enough jobs in that field. She wound up working for the Justice Department prosecuting criminals, largely tax cases.

It probably won’t be that bad if your children become engineers. There will always be work for them building weapons. But if you want them to help with the economy or the environment etc, then you need to encourage the government to pass laws that don’t discourage your children from doing the work that needs to be done.

16 J Thomas September 11, 2008 at 11:36 am

It doesn’t help to put your kids through engineering school unless there are sufficient jobs for engineers.

A long time ago I suggested that my sister become an ecologist, because we had a lot of ecology work that needed to be done and so we’d need people to do it. She did. But it turned out we simply didn’t pay for that work and she couldn’t make a living at it. She looked at the big picture and decided what needed to be done was international ecological law. She went to law school and got her degree intending to do that. But it turned out there were not enough jobs in that field. She wound up working for the Justice Department prosecuting criminals, largely tax cases.

It probably won’t be that bad if your children become engineers. There will always be work for them building weapons. But if you want them to help with the economy or the environment etc, then you need to encourage the government to pass laws that don’t discourage your children from doing the work that needs to be done.

17 Charles Hueter September 11, 2008 at 11:50 am

c) we do in fact have personal obligations to limit consumption.

I’m still waiting to hear coherent reasoning for this that does not also justify and essentially condone the whole gamut of state interventions into our economic and personal lives.

Then again, given Mr. Cowen’s other ‘c’ (Cut back on your activities which most closely resemble aggressive interference into the lives of others.), he seems to imply that the act of driving down the road constitutes aggressive interference. In which case, there may be no point in expecting a coherent answer on the above question from him.

18 Martin September 11, 2008 at 11:55 am

Tyler, you forgot to mention reducing meat consumption, which is easy to do, saves money and healthy. And if one eats meat one should make sure it comes from industrial farming which has more efficient feeding practices that tend to reduce methane emissions. Livestock has a similar contribution to global warming as traffic does according to the World Bank and UNDP.

Tyler personally should be moral at a different margin: for example write a book about it and sell it at marginal cost. The profit he loses is much, much less than the additional consumer surplus created. And, Tyler, it is a thing only you can do.

In fact Tyler charges money for his books. If at the same time he ever donates money to anything that seems foolish: Certainly it is much more efficient to give up royalties, increase readership which adds to both their private surplus and presumably has a positive externality (readers tell others about useful ideas, politicians’ incentives become better etc.)

19 Zephyrus September 11, 2008 at 12:15 pm

Charles Hueter seems to be that particular species of libertarian for whom protecting property rights takes second call to pissing off liberals/environmentalists.

Surely you understand–if I have an industry that generates toxic waste and I pump it into someone’s own private property, I’m violating their personal property rights as much as if I had come in and stolen a big screen TV and punched you in the face. If I run a company who runs process that sometimes spontaneously explode and render the surrounding area for miles economically unproductive, when previously they had, I owe money to the people whom I just forcibly rendered their property unusable for the sake of my own profit. If I dump toxic waste into a river and give everyone children cancer, I should be tried and convicted of multiple counts of murder. All of these things have been realized, and current property law accounts for them so much that it pretty much no longer happens; the price of doing those things is incorporated legally into the action being taken.

But when it comes to global warming, you turn a blind eye to it, even though it can lead to desertification of productive agricultural lands, flooding in coastal areas, and in theory more severe weather which itself causes large amounts of property damage.

Even though I’m not one, I think libertarians could potentially be the most important player in formulating policy to deal with climate change. But that contingent of I-wanna-piss-off-environmentalists is deeply unserious and ruining the conversation. While libertarians could be trying to figure out how to most fairly and effectively incorporate the cost of global warming into economic prices, instead we have people running around saying “well, we don’t know if global warming is even happening” or “global warming is happening but not man-made” or “global warming is happening and man-made, but it will help everyone so we should do it more!”

If libertarians ever want to be taken seriously in policy circles, they’re going to have to admit to scientific evidence, recognize that global warming will have both winners and losers, and commit to protecting the rights of the losers. Then they can get in the game and help deal with the chicken littles polluting the other side of the debate.

20 In Check September 11, 2008 at 12:34 pm

“If libertarians ever want to be taken seriously in policy circles, they’re going to have to admit to scientific evidence, recognize that global warming will have both winners and losers, and commit to protecting the rights of the losers. ”

Amen.

21 In Check September 11, 2008 at 12:50 pm

“Send money and other forms of aid to the victims and future victims.”
-Tyler

It’s an interesting suggestion, but it only works if:
(1) …the victims consent to this arrangement. If the impact of my/your lifestyle is forced on someone, then we’re not really libertarians.
(2) …you can measure the impact you’ve had in some sort of meaningful way.
(3) …you commit to aid for the duration of the problem (i.e. “you broke it, you bought it”). This sounds very much like permanent welfare.

I find it interesting that no-one has suggested planting forests, environmental clean-ups, or any other corrective measure. Why is damage control the only avenue open to us? Shouldn’t the goal be to have a positive environmental impact rather than just a smaller eco-footprint?

22 Brandon Berg September 11, 2008 at 1:11 pm

Have fewer children than otherwise, if only in the stochastic sense (e.g., don’t move to Alaska at a young age).

While this may (or may not) be a good idea in general, it’s definitely a bad idea to suggest it here. Marginal Revolution readers tend to be middle- to upper-class and well above average in intelligence–in short, precisely the sort of people whose children are likely to produce strong positive externalities. You should be encouraging your readers to have more children, not fewer.

23 Zephyrus September 11, 2008 at 1:26 pm

I apologize for the countless typos and grammatical errors in the previous comment. Pretty bad, even for a comment.

In Check, you have a good point about corrective measures, at least on the policy level. If it were possible, this is how I’d set things up, and what I think is fair. Estimate current carbon emissions and the steady state for the level of carbon emissions given that level. Estimate what only the economic costs are in moving from the current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to the steady state one; identify the losers specifically. Take those economic costs and divide it proportionally to carbon producers. If someone has an industry that takes carbon out of the atmosphere, they would also proportionally get a subsidy. Then the total extra carbon tax can be distributed as needed.

Now, you can disagree with whether this is the ideal solution or not–should winners have to pay for the benefit they receive, for instance? And recognizing that as ideal is a far cry from dealing with logistical issues of doing those estimates, and still further from practically implementing it with a minimum of government overhead and intervention, let alone doing it on a global level. But those details should be the actual debate, instead of what we currently have.

24 Larry September 11, 2008 at 2:10 pm

@J. Thomas – You start off well, then contradict yourself.

“By the iron laws of economics, if you sacrifice to reduce your consumption all you accomplish is to make scarce resources cheaper for others to consume. All the resources that go on the market *will* be consumed at some price, if there’s *anybody* who wants them.”

If we put a tax on fossil fuels, someone else will use the amount that the price encourages us to forego.

@Tom Kelly – “The idea that fewer children puts less pressure on the environment seems empirically suspect.”

It’s self-evident, that a lower load will consume less stuff. As we get wealthier, we’re willing to put more into the environment, because we can afford to.

@Nancy – “If fewer people means less specialization and less inventiveness, fewer people might not be the best choice.”

If we need more specialization, we can achieve it by mobilizing the people we already have who somehow got stuck working in the fields of all the impoverished kleptocracies out there.

All consumption damages the environment. Conserving yourself is just leaving more for the rest of us (thanks!) If you want to protect it, you have to actively sequester resources. I.e., you could buy oil and donate it to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Or buy an oil lease, and shut the pump down.

Every seat on every plane is full. If you don’t sit there, someone else will. Buy a gate at an airport and turn it into another Starbucks restaurant.

Get your car crushed instead of selling it.

I.e., you have to work the supply side (no, this is not “supply side” economics.)

#liberty – “The best thing that we can all do is to contribute to new and better technology (through going into engineering, science, any field which can move those forward)”

Another good investment. We don’t damage the environment intentionally, and when we can come up with less damaging ways to live well cheap, we swarm to it.

25 Ben Kalafut September 11, 2008 at 2:52 pm

The missing option: aggressively support public policies that result in “internalizing” the negative externality.

26 Steve Sailer September 11, 2008 at 3:43 pm

liberalarts asks:

“Are Alaskan families larger?”

Yes.

To make an apples to apples comparison, let’s look at non-Hispanic white women. The last time the government published the Total Fertility Rate for each state was in 2002, when Alaska was second only to Mormon Utah in babies per lifetime per white woman at 2.28. That was a 38% higher rate than in California (1.65).

27 Sean September 11, 2008 at 4:20 pm

cg: The birth rate for native-born Americans have gone down, but there’s also been a large increase in immigration since then. Or are you implying that children are specifically to blame for the existence of pollution?

Anyone who genuinely cares about overpopulation should be concerned with places where the birth rate is high, not the US ir Europe, where the birth rate is relatively low. If nothing else, fewer children being born in Africa, Asia, and Mexico will mean fewer immigrants to the US down the line.

28 jim September 11, 2008 at 4:44 pm

This is quackery. Pollution is simply an engineering challenge. One we get better at solving every year. And our pollution mitigation tech is improving much, much faster than our pollution generation.

Environmentalism is just nonsense religion. It’s superstition for morons.

29 lxm September 11, 2008 at 5:19 pm

I’m waiting for the market to solve these issues, and probably not in a pleasant way.

I feel no moral imperative to save the world.

I do feel a moral imperative to save myself and my family. So if peak oil or global warming appear to be affecting my family and myself I will act, but not otherwise.

Selfishness appears to rule this culture. Who am I to stand in its way?

I’m riding the wave. I do not expect to see any real change in anyone’s behavior until some catastrophe occurs and I am going to do my best to stay out of its way.

If I’m wrong and people wake up one day and say, “hey, we’re creating some serious externalities here and perhaps we should stop;” well, I’ll help then. But it isn’t going to happen.

30 Larry September 12, 2008 at 2:33 am

I’m disappointed that nobody gets the notion that reducing demand has essentially no effect on pollution globally. Only by reducing supply do you affect anything other than price…

31 Larry September 12, 2008 at 9:08 am

J.T. – The Army imports its fuel into Iraq. And there are no refineries anywhere near Afghanistan.

We aren’t going to burn all fossil fuel. We have 00’s of years of coal and alternative oil resources to work with. We’re at most decades away from converting to solar (including solar-powered bio and wind) and nuclear as long-term energy sources.

32 cg September 12, 2008 at 11:06 am

sean, at the end of the day, overpopulation is a global problem.

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