11 April, 2008

The environment and panaceas

Given my willingness to often accept various things scientists tell me at face value without researching them more, perhaps this post will be a larger piece of hypocrisy since a person who proclaims green values had five children.

I don't like people interfering in the lives of others unless strictly necessary. Even when such intervention is done for the best possible reasons and with the purest heart, it often backfires so spectacularly so as to be not worth it. The damage done by well-meaning intervention often seems worse when it is the issue of the day which is 'meriting' such intervention.

In the nineteenth century, female labour was 'scandalous' and so laws were brought in restricting it. The result? Families which depended on such labour were impoverished and female children worth even less before and consequently even more ill-nourished. When we ban the sale of alcohol (the source of much low-level anti-social behaviour, true) we get organised crime.

When explaining anything, one always get to the point where if the explainer were to simplify what they were trying to say down more, it just becomes wrong. The same applies when trying to cure a problem. The modern day 'evil' is 'the environment'. The problem with this is 'the environment' is just too big to be dealt with as one, but if we split it up and try and deal with different components separately, we often 'cure' one at the expense of another.

For example, we currently focus on carbon and aim to reduce it. That all sound very commendable, except the focus on carbon is to the detriment of dealing with other problems such as methane. So not only are our resources being misallocated, the decisions made can often be wrong too. A focus on carbon reduction says we should put waste in landfill rather than burning it in an incinerator. Whilst landfills are unsightly and smelly, they do not cause carbon and are therefore 'better'. However, if we leave rubbish in landfill, it produces methane, looks unsightly AND gives nothing back. The overall balance is negative. If, on the other hand, we burn our waste in an incinerator, methane is not produced, the energy it produces from burning can be converted into electricity (thus meaning fossil fuels need not be burnt as much), we don't have unslightly and smelly landfill (although an incinerator in your back garden may not be desirable either!) and much of the 'dirty' carbon can be scrubbed out. The overall balance is therefore positive for incineration.

The above is merely an example of where the balance can go wrong within an environmenal equation. Where non-environmental factors have to be taken into account like, say, human lives, the equation is even more difficult. The use of biofuels might salve the consciences of rich nations and reduce their dependence on oil from countries they might not like much. But the cost hits the poorest in the world the most as it causes food prices to rise. And biofuels might not even be that environmentally friendly after all, anyway.

When a problem is so large, a single panacea is almost certainly not going to exist. Biofuels will not save the world any more than banning alcohol rescued the morals of America in the 1920s. Many decisions sound good and make us feel better, but it would seem wiser to take a step back, make the unpopular decision and be willing to change our minds.

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