With the House’s passage last week of cap and trade legislation, which likely would be the largest indirect tax increase in American history— in the middle of a national recession– after its sponsors inserted a 300 page amendment in the small hours of the night before the vote (that no one had the chance to read), the culture of environmentalism has been on my mind. The other day, my co-worker sent me a link detailing how scientists planned to breed cows that burp less methane into the atmosphere in an effort to slow global warming. Absurdities of the legislative process and some cow breeding aside, the most interesting (read: disturbing) news story I read in the past week is found in the New York Times online edition, titled, “How Green is a Nudist Vacation?”
The premise is self-explanatory: “Living more hours naked each day results in a dramatic drop in my laundry, which in turn reduces my water and energy use,” says Kathy Blanchard in an article on The Naturist Society’s web site. The NY Times article mentions that nude hiking in the winter in the Swiss Alps is becoming popular, and “of the 1.5 million people who practice naturism in France, nearly a third come to [the Aquitaine region], while ‘foreign naturists’ account for more than half of vacationers in the centers and campsites across the region.” (A parenthetical in the article notes that “presumably their fossil fuel use in transportation could cancel any climate benefits of going clothes-free.”)
Correction: the most bizarre environmentally-related item I’ve encountered last week involves this article on treehuggers.com, which I came across in researching for this post, which claims lifting the online poker ban will cause a CO2 emissions “boom.” In pursuit of online gambling, people will increase their computer use, and “computers generate between 40-80 grams of greenhouse gas emissions simply by being on.” (Apparently hours spend perusing treehuggers.com doesn’t count.)
The biggest problem I have with the kind of thinking illustrated by the above examples is that it has no natural stopping point. I think the cited stories bear this out. Every activity has an environmental impact that could reasonably considered deleterious, from breathing to wearing clothes (even not wearing clothes. The body has to expend energy to keep itself warm, which, if not aided by clothes, will require more food, the production of which will have environmental impact). “Minimizing our carbon footprint” is an exercise in arbitrariness; given that I have to get out of bed, what can I do to minimize my impact on the environment? But who says I have to get out of bed? Given that I have to commute to work, what can I do? But why do I have to have a job? Given that I really enjoy mountain biking, which impacts my caloric needs and production of carbon dioxide, how can I mountain bike in an environmentally conscious manner? But if it’s so harmful, why should I be allowed to mountain bike at all? My own particular effort to minimize my carbon footprint depends first on what my lifestyle choices are, which themselves are subject to universal environmental scrutiny. The ultimate logical conclusion of the paradigm is suicide (after all, non-life has minimal effect on the environment), which leads some of my more jaded friends to conclude that environmentalism, at its core, is anti-human. (Meanwhile, others see it as a tool that government is tempted to use to control behaviors and the economy.)
Now, just because something is arbitrary, doesn’t mean we are absolved from engaging it– just because environmental responsibility is somewhat hard to define doesn’t mean we should abandon our efforts to pursue it. But this particular environmental paradigm– that virtually every human activity damages the environment via heating the atmosphere– encumbers us with nearly unlimited demands.
Another problem is that personal efforts to “combat” global warming that seemingly appeal to our common sense often have unintended results, because again, even our changed behaviors leave a mark on the environment. Buying a Prius, as opposed to a Taurus, puts a stamp of approval on a manufacturing process that sends parts all over the world, creating hidden environmental costs that could cancel out the relative benefits of operating a hybrid. I can’t seem to find a link right now, but I remember hearing recently about a study that found that an increase bicycle traffic in urban areas actually leads to higher carbon emissions, because bikes cause automobile traffic to flow less efficiently and cars spend more time idling. (Now, if more of those pesky bikers would actually stop at stop signs…) And it’s easy to imagine that the practice of recycling, in which large diesel trucks make short trips between houses to pick up household salvage and bring it to the recycling facility, sends a lot of extra CO2 into the air (though, from a preservation of resources perspective, I find recycling perfectly legitimate– it’s just probably not going to “fight” climate change, even if you believe that it exists and humans are causing it). Incidentally, the solution to the problems posed by these three examples seems easy enough– eliminate automobiles. But that illustrates the kind of absurd impracticalities environmentalists are increasingly asking us to consider with a straight face, and should give us pause– before we contort our lifestyles to such a degree, are we really sure we’re causing global warming (if it’s even happening)? After all, carbon dioxide makes up only 0.038% of our atmosphere (of which only 3.4% of that minuscule number is caused by human activity), and even the EPA recognizes there’s mounting evidence the world has been cooling since 1998. For starters.
I submit that we need a different model than climate change to spur us to be better stewards of what we have. Personally, I never thought conservation of resources was such a bad paradigm. The alternatives are too speculative, arbitrary, and limitlessly demanding, but are thankfully fraught with symbolic absurdities like nudist vacations that have the power to make us question whether the sky is truly falling.