Celebrate Earth Day by Giving Up Eco-Fads

Apr 16, 2008

This Earth Day we are likely to be greeted by images of Hollywood stars doing their part to save the planet. We will be encouraged to follow their lead. After all, if Leonardo di Caprio and Brad Pitt are doing it, it can't be just a fad, right?

The problem these days is that ecofads aren't just being embraced by celebrities, but by politicians and policymakers too. Of course we take the proclamations made by movie stars about going green with a grain of salt as we watch them jet across the globe. We understand that they are better at symbolism than substance.

Unfortunately many of the ideas advocated by pop stars find their way into policy. Not surprisingly these ideas fail to achieve the desired result and, in a number of cases, actually end up doing more harm than good.

This Earth Day we have an opportunity to move beyond environmental symbolism by rejecting ecofads and demanding policies that engage the creative economy to improve energy efficiency and environmental quality.

In 2006 Washington passed legislation requiring the use of biofuels in all vehicles. Politicians jumped at the chance to promote this trendy and popular solution.

Just two years later some significant problems have emerged.

Government subsidies cause farmers to plant on marginal land. Often it takes more energy to produce the crop than it yields in biofuel. Subsidies for biofuel exports have led overseas producers to ship biofuels to the U.S. for final mixing so their product can collect the subsidy, then be shipped overseas again. One can only imagine the additional greenhouse gas emissions involved in this remarkably counterproductive result of political efforts to jump on the biofuel bandwagon.

This is not to say that biofuels don't hold promise. The problem is that politicians looking to score quick political points fell prey to a fad and made bad decisions.

Or consider compact florescent lightbulbs.

For years environmental activists gave strong warnings about mercury in the environment, even encouraging pregnant women to avoid fish due to concerns about mercury. Even after a massive study in the British medical journal The Lancet demonstrated that fish, consumed in any quantity during pregnancy was good for the baby, activists continued to warn against the impact of mercury.

Now that climate change is the environmental cause du jour, many of those same activists are suddenly glib about the risks of mercury. Compact florescent lightbulbs (CFLs), which contain mercury, they now argue, are good for the environment. The EPA, however, provides this guidance for when one of the lightbulbs breaks: "Have people and pets leave the room, and don't let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out. Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more. Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one."

The City of Seattle offers subsidies to residents to buy CFLs. Meanwhile, the state is considering adding a fee for the bulbs to fund mercury disposal.

Finally, Brad Pitt isn't the only one promoting "green" buildings these days. Washington law now requires new state buildings meet the silver level of one "green" building system known as LEED. The justification for these standards, however, had more to do with following fads than science.

One reason given for supporting green buildings is that they didn't use old growth timber. This reasoning, however, is meaningless. There isn't a builder in Washington today, green or otherwise, who uses old growth lumber. Old growth is scarce and the cost is extremely high. LEED promoters don't know this, but rely instead on trendy, but incorrect, justifications for their favored policy.

As a result, "green" schools have become yet another ecofad.

Each of these approaches holds promise. The problem arises when politicians grab on to what is trendy and forget the science and economics.

Everywhere we look, market-based environmental solutions that harness market creativity and incentives are improving the efficiency of cars, reducing energy use and producing technologies that use resources more carefully (for example, aluminum cans use 35 percent less aluminum today than in 1972).

Earth Day is a good day to examine what we do to leave a sustainable legacy for the future. It is also a good day to tell policymakers to avoid ecofads that often do more damage than good.