Thursday, April 02, 2009


I used to be an environmentalist-- not quite the deep ecology sort-- but fairly committed. I did the standard recycling, i composted, i contributed money to GreenPeace and the EDF. We replaced our toilets with the low-flush sort, and we had shower heads with manual valves so we could switch the water off and on during a shower. My wife and i managed to share one car for the first twelve years of our marriage even after both kids were born.

But for the last decade or so, i've been more part of the problem than the solution. No change of heart, just a reallocation of my time toward kids and my strange hobbies. Changing houses also had a major effect. My current house is twice the size of the previous, and the water i expend on my landscape has increased several-fold i'd guess. A second car became a necessity when jobs moved to different parts of town and kids moved to separate schools.

I've been thinking more about environmentalism recently because of my new job. Our company automates the process of stopping postal junk mail. I don't know what the success rate of direct mail marketing is, but i know that 90% of the junk that i get doesn't even get a glance before it goes into the recycling bin. The Direct Marketing Association tries to minimize the problem by pointing out that recycling has reduced the amount of junk mail waste so that it accounts for only 2.4% of landfill material. Granted, that means that eliminating junk mail leaves us with 97.6% of a whole lot of crap, but that 2.4% is a substantial, identifiable chunk that really has no reason to exist.

Of course, a lot of people who make a living from direct marketing would disagree with me. My personal feelings about marketers and list compilers aside, it is a large industry that employs many. The point being that i've begun to realize that the key to environmental problems is, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, the economy (stupid). By which i mean the squishy, macroeconomic, USA-today pie-chart sort of economy that involves the subjective trade-offs between clean air and sending one's kids to college. During my lifetime, environmentalism has become a sort of ideological dividing line, where the true believers on both side care more about their influence than reality. But i think most regular folk can pretty much look and see the effect of humanity on the nearby surroundings without a lot of expert opinion. The problem is that most people value their livelihood somewhere just below their family and well above pretty much anything that's not causing immediate harm to their family or their livelihood.

My personal approach to being environmentally aware has become more pragmatic. I think the key concept for me is that you can't ever improve on not creating something in the first place. Product A might be more "green" than product B, but nothing at all will always beat both of them. Repairing will generally beat replacing. All things being equal, i will pay a premium for an item that requires fewer resources to produce, on the theory that we all ultimately pay less for landfill space, transportation, and environmental remediation. The environmentalist/entrepreneur Paul Hawken calls this "source reduction". To me it seems both economically sound, and logically unassailable.

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