Monday, May 7, 2007

It Ain't Easy Being Green

My Indulgent Lifestyle
The world is going to shit, and I'm part of the problem. There's no doubt about it. I'd like to think I'm part of the solution, but it's just not realistic. Consider: If everybody in the world lived a lifestyle like I do (small, walk-up apartment in New York, no car, subway to work everyday, modest consumption of convenience goods), it would take over 6 planets to sustain our resource needs.

This assessment courtesy of the Ecological Footprint assessment quiz, available from MyFootprint.org. The quiz, which takes less than 10 minutes to complete, helps evaluate what the environmental impact of your lifestyle and consumption habits, captured by the Ecological Footprint indicator. If you've got a second, take the quiz, and then come back and read on.

A Little About the Ecological Footprint
Ecological Footprinting is a methodology of evaluating how big an impact each individual has on the earth (it is also useful for measuring impact for other "units" like cities, companies, and nations), in a set of simple and discrete composite indicators. Based on principles of resource accounting and material flows through systems, Ecological Footprints (EF) try to estimate the impact that each and every individual has on the global environment, specifically in terms of resource use. Initially developed by Dr. Mathis Wackernagel as a PhD thesis, and later refined at Redefining Progress and currently the Global Footprint Network, Ecological Footprints have been widely employed as a tool for helping people (students, concerned community members, business people, government leaders) better understand exactly how resource-intensive our lifestyles can be. While the EF can help you better conceptualize your environmental impact, it is even more beneficial in helping you understand how you might reduce your impact -- by making discrete (though rarely insignificant) changes in your life.

The EF is a great heuristic tool, and among other things, helps set a common standard measure to help judge whether you are doing better or worse in terms of environmental impact over time. That said, it should be noted that Ecological Footprinting is a very imprecise science, reducing and generalizing complex ecological concepts for the sake of comprehensibility. Additionally, the methodology, particularly as it is expressed in simple quizzes, cannot account for every variable in a person's impact on the environment. For example, the Ecological Footprint does a poor job accounting for the impact of persistent toxins in the environment - materials which, once entering an ecosystem, cannot be absorbed and processed by the ecosystem. Similarly, any given EF is a snapshot in time, and will not account for improvements in technology that may make it more efficient to extract resources from nature and process them into the goods or services you consume. To learn a bit more about the methodology itself, see the Global Footprint Network.

As a quick point of disclosure, I spent four months working on the first Ecological Footprinting quizzes while a research assistant at Redefining Progress in 1999.

What My Ecological Footprint Tells Me
I find the best way to take value from the EF quizzes is to first complete the quiz as faithfully as possible, and then go back to the quiz and vary your responses, in order to find out what aspects of your lifestyle have the greatest impact on your Ecological Footprint. In my case, my base EF was a whopping 29 acres -- much bigger than the half-acre lot I grew up on, with its little vegetable plot in the backyard.

So what about my lifestyle causes this impact? There are a few discernible factors:
  • I eat meat fairly regularly. Meat is an energy and resource intensive food to raise, process, and deliver to market, particularly when compared to a diet consisting of less meat and more grains and vegetables.
  • I live alone. While I don't have a particularly large apartment, living by myself does proportionally increase my share of household related impacts (electricity and water consumption, household waste) when contrasted with multi-person households.
  • I travel, by plane, a lot. For both work and pleasure, I travel. Not surprisingly, the environmental cost of air travel is quite significant (think about the equivalent fuel you might consume driving to all of the same destinations to which you fly).
What, then, is good about my lifestyle? Well, when your EF is 29, not a ton. But some positives include:
  • Commuting via mass transportation and foot. The shared energy burden that public transportation allows can greatly reduce your footprint, and, of course, biking and walking are the most efficient ways of getting from point A to point B.
  • Living in a big city. Although this isn't well captured in the MyFootprint quiz, living in urban centers can significantly reduce your environmental impact, when compared with living in the suburbs or in traditional houses not specifically retro-fitted to be environmentally friendly. In cities where residential and commercial uses are mixed, where public services are shared, and generally, efficiently distributed, individuals are able to consume a proportionally smaller share of resources.
  • Shopping smart and shopping less. Being aware and trying (although not always succeeding) to shop for products that are locally grown/made, to cut down on energy associated with transport, have minimal packaging, and generally, not buying a lot can help your impact profile.
Those modest good points aside, the average American has an Ecological Footprint of 24 acres per person, requiring 4.5 hypothetical planets to sustain this level of consumption, if we believe that everyone in the world is entitled to pursuing similar happiness. So what to do about it?

Lifestyle Choices
Already implicit, I would hope, in the EF quiz are changes that an individual can make to lower their total impact. Unfortunately, the choices are rarely as simple as "Paper versus Plastic." More often, these choices are much more core to major lifestyle decisions: where to live, what car to drive, what to eat, how big a house to own. While the choices aren't easy to make, the environmentally healthy choices are generally clear: live near where you work; walk, bike, or take public transport, if possible; buy hybrids and fuel-efficient cars instead of SUVs; eat locally grown food, with as little packaging as possible; eat meat as infrequently as possible; own a smaller house that is equipped with energy-efficient features.

Can You Be Green and Be Happy?
One of the unfortunate bugaboos of the environmental movement is that it is comprised of a bunch of dour, nay-saying party-poopers. The tendency to frame environmentally positive choices as being negative, in terms of requiring a person to make a sacrifice in the quality of their lifestyle, is another unfortunate hallmark of how people understand environmental decision-making. Many environmental choices, however, are net-positives in terms of quality of life, and should be framed as such: a diet richer in grains and vegetables will be healthier than a diet that is red meat-heavy; living closer to work means less commute time and more personal time; mixed use communities tend to be more vibrant and active than commuter suburbs.

That said, it would be naive to think that every environmentally positive decision will also make a person happy. And, of course, the lifestyle choices listed above will only work and last if they are in line with what is fulfilling to an individual in their life.

To read more about how to make personal lifestyle choices that are more green, see Slate.com's Green Challenge.

Personal Choices vs. Political Choices
Unfortunately, for most people living in the U.S., it is very difficult to live with modest environmental impact by making personal choices alone. Unless you are willing to put a good deal of effort in to making your house energy efficient, not drive much, and have good luck aligning your work life and personal life, chances are you'll end up a net-consumer of environmental resources. Certainly this will be true if you are an "average American."

What this requires, for those of us who care about the environment and sustainability, is to be active in advocating political and economic outcomes that can make it easier for everybody to be environmentally more responsible. Such political and economic choices might include promoting community development policies that focus on mixed-use communities, functional downtowns, and useful mass transit systems; supporting a locally-focused food economy and creating incentives for local business to provide good and services locally; buying and promoting alternative energies, including hybrid cars and cleaner energies from the power grid.

The list goes on, and I'll try to spend more time in later posts talking about both personal and political choices that can have a positive impact on the environment and quality of life. Of course, as someone with an EF of 29, I offer this not as preaching, but as part of my own quest to find a happy medium between choices that enrich my life and choices that are environmentally responsible.

6 comments:

Cromulus said...

How exactly is this footprint calculated? Is there much subjectivity with regards to the weightings of different factors?

Also seems like a lot of the questions hinge around energy efficiency. Lets say I lived in France where a large amount of the energy is nuclear. I don't think we're at risk of depleting our nuclear resources any time in the near future, so is that sustainable?

Lastly, what make you of the argument that scarcity in certain resources will lead to higher prices and thus spurn on the production of more efficient technologies. I think John Tierney is a big fan of this idea, pointing out our experiences after the oil crises in the seventies. I think this is insanity, but was curious on your take.

Oh yeah, and what about the Pigou club? That seems reasonable to me even if Mankiw is a jackass.

Ritik Dholakia said...

Cromulus, eh?

How is the footprint calculated? Well, at the basic level, the methodology asks you to account for your consumption, in terms of raw materials and energy consumed, and then uses conversion factors standard in materials science to convert that into idealized acreage needed to create those resources. The quizzes, however, are necessarily simplified analyses that gloss over a lot in their calculation. I wouldn't say that very much about the methodology is subjective, but the results are certainly imprecise. They are accurate in terms of direction and scale, but shouldn't be interpreted as precise measures. I.e., if I bought 29 acres of land, I wouldn't necessarily be able to grow and produce all of the things that I consume (it may be more, may be somewhat less). More on methodology can be found here: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/gfn_sub.php?content=datamethods

You are right in noting that energy production is a major component of the EF, and that nuclear has a different impact than fossil fuel-based energies. That said, the basic methodology accommodates different sources of energy - and nuclear has both the benefit of being a less carbon-intensive production method and the drawback of creating persistent radioactive waste and the potential of catastrophic environmental risk. Some aspects of the benefits and risks of nuclear are well accounted for in EF, others less so. As to whether the quiz takes that into account, I'm not sure.

I think the argument that the market will create incentives for clean technologies based on price correction is generally correct (we can see it happening now, to some extent, when you consider both price and other information influencing demand, rather than supply). The concern with this approach are: 1) Will the technologies be developed in time (innovation is not an on-demand process, unfortunately), and 2) If the resource strain calculated EF analyses are as severe suggested, can technology create significant enough efficiencies? A question better answered by engineers than economists.

As for the Pigovian taxes, I am essentially a fan of them... from a consumer's perspective, I think they help right-set prices and internalize externalities in the market. From a pure economics perspective, they are problematic, but so, fundamentally, are so many government and corporate policies that act against prices in the opposite direction, as well as a fundamental problem of information, when trying to evaluate what the impact of pollution and resource consumption are going to be on the environment long term.

Cromulus said...

I don't have the time to read the methodology, but I imagine there has to be a fair amount of subjectivity. I don't see how you can translate the costs and benefits of nuclear energy into a measure of acres per person without cutting a lot of corners.

This problem certainly pervades economics. Welfare measures, for example, make so many assumptions (i.e. agent preferences, homogeneity of agents, perfect competition etc) some of which have been flat out disproved and others that often don't hold. As a result I often wonder why anyone even bothers. All I can guess is that politicians like to have numbers they can bandy about, and will ask for them no matter how worthless they may be. This is not to say that the footprint anyway suffers from the same level of difficulties.

As for the market creating incentives through prices, I think we're in agreement... In my opinion, it does work to some extent: the implosion of GM is at least in part due to people shifting consumption away from gas guzzling cars.
But there is no way that people are fully internalizing the costs of fossil fuels when they purchase cars and gas. For example, I'd imagine at the very least that there's some sort of time inconsistency going on wherein consumers are discounting the future costs of their choices way too much. All of which is to say that I don't think we live in a perfect coasian world, where all externalities are eventually compensated for and the most efficient outcome magically comes into being. There are frictions; agents aren't "rational"; and they aren't homogeneous.

Also, as you correctly point out, its questionable that the market will come up with the technology quickly enough.

Pigovian taxes do seem like a good way to correct for some of the negative externalities caused by oil consumption. I'm not so worried about their distortionary influence on the market since the whole idea of a walrasian equilibrium seems pretty dubious to me.

An interesting and more promising branch of economics thats emerging right now seems a bit less preoccupied with finding equilibria and instead talks about fluctuations. It's based on "interacting-agent" models and makes far less assumptions about agent behavior. However, proponents of this new field of study had to make their own journal (the Journal of Economic Interaction and Coordination), because the AER wouldn't accept papers that didn't specifically presuppose the presence of an equilibrium. Not surprising, but very sad.

Moko said...

my EF was 15--driven quite a bit, I'm afraid, by my plane travel...i think if it actually asked us to input how many km/miles we travel by plane I would've had an EF of 30 or so. but as it asks for general lifestyle behaviors and not specific numbers, this vegetarian comes off a bit shinier than dholakia.

Ritik Dholakia said...

Crom -

Definitely share your frustration and agree with your critiques of a lot of economic models - that they are predicated on some fundamentally flawed assumptions, to the extent that they are of questionable value once you take them out of the academy.

The EF model, as I pointed out, has lots of flaws, and the quizzes are certainly highly simplified. Again, I think the value is not in establishing a precise measure of your impact, but characterizing the dimensions and drivers of a person's impact on the environment.

I wouldn't characterize the flaws as "subjective," however, but that just may be a matter of word choice. To me, subjective would imply that the model would behave differently for two different people (and a model behaving differently is not the same as the model producing different results). The EF does not, in general, do that, and not for the nuclear energy question -- it is simply a matter of agreeing on an acceptable conversion factor for nuclear energy.

The flaws in the model that are problematic are those of imprecision (i.e., the EFs are generally accurate in magnitude and direction) and the major flaw in that the abstract "acre" in which EFs are calculated is not something that exists. I.E., if I actually owned 21 acres of land, I could not produce all of the different goods and services that I consume -- because different kinds of land/resources with differing characteristics are needed to produce wood vs. steel vs. hydroelectric power vs. jet fuel, etc.

This would be pretty similar to the points you make about a lot of economic models being predicated on idealized and unrealistic assumptions. I think the criticisms you make are valid for most economic models, and the real trick is understanding what the models are good for and what they are not good for -- as you've pointed out.

Ritik Dholakia said...

Moko always comes off a bit shinier than Dholakia, I'm afraid. It's the blessing and the curse of Moko.