What are our personal obligations toward the environment?

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

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.


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