Tuesday, 14 August 2007

It's not easy being sustainable, or smart.

Saving the Planet. It's not easy, is it--even if you want to 'do your bit' for Gaia--especially when emotions and politics replace reason and good hard sense. Let's face it, most people doing most 'planet-saving' things aren't doing that stuff for any actual tangible good their actions will produce, but more for what they see as the 'intrinsic value' of the sacrifice they've made for The Planet.

Think globally; sacrifice locally--and be seen doing it. That's the mantra. It's all about feeling good while doing what's been decreed as good.

But just imagine you genuinely wanted your actions to 'make a difference.' How would you know? As I've blogged here recently, if walking is less 'green' than driving, does that mean you should take the car down to the shops? When plastic bags and disposable nappies are 'better' than their paper and cloth alternatives, how do you display your 'green credentials' to your friends? Or when diesel 4WDs are more green than diesel trains, how should one go to work? Should you even go to work? What about all those old lightbulbs you need to dispose of--is it better for the landfills not to install the new feelgood models, and just sit around in the dark instead? (All examples produced by Chris Goodall recently.)

And if recycling paper uses more energy than producing new paper; if burning wood is better than recycling it; if Priuses are less energy efficient over their life time than gas guzzlers; if buses and trains are more wasteful when considering whole-of-day costs than the private vehicle fleet; if planting trees at mid- to high-latitudes is worse than cutting them down . . . then it seems that "thinking globally and acting locally" is actually more difficult than the easy smug answers might suggest.

It really isn't easy appeasing Gaia, is it? Or appeasing Gaia's smug representatives here on earth. The easy certainties that many of them want enshrined in law would do less for the planet than just letting price signals, property rights and human ingenuity do the job they're supposed to: send information on resources and markets and avoid the destruction of environments, while leaving the productive free to invent new ways of doing thing.

The problem really is that we're not being left free to work things out in the way best suited to human life on earth; instead we're being made to feel guilty for the sin of being alive, and being corralled into doing what Gaians wish we should do in pursuit of ends which are sometimes only peripherally related to human life and human wellbeing.

And the Gaians won't take no for an answer, even when their notions are proved wrong. The theory of Smart Growth is literally one of the most all-encompassing of foolishnesses--it is stupidity that literally encircles and encloses our major cities, reducing the supply of land and pushing up house prices. But as Owen McShane notes in the latest National Business Review, the green theory that many assume must be behind Smart Growth just doesn't stack up.
...Smart Growth theory has been further undermined by a recent Australian study called “Consuming Australia” by Sydney University’s Australian Conservation Foundation, using data collected by the Centre for Integrated Sustainability Analysis. You cannot get a much more PC organization than that.
...The Sydney researchers found that total transport activity – including private vehicle use, public transport and aircraft – accounts for only 10.5% of the carbon footprint of the average Australian family. This was the smallest slice of the carbon footprint “pie”. Food accounted for over 28% of the footprint. Putting everyone on a diet would have a greater impact.
...Now there’s a new campaign for Weightwatchers – “Join up and Save the Planet!”
...The Government should note that “construction and renovations” account for only 11.8% of the family’s carbon footprint – a bit more than transport, but much less than “other goods and services” at almost 30%.
...The report bluntly concludes:
If every Australian household switched to renewable energy and stopped driving their cars tomorrow, total household emissions would decline by only about 18%.
...So why do our social engineers focus on transport and construction which are such small slices of the carbon footprint pie? Again, I suspect it’s just because “They are there” – and, in particular, they are there to tax, inspect, and regulate.
...This Australian study also examined the carbon footprints of families living in different states, different cities, and in different locations within cities. The researchers probably expected to come up with support for Smart Growth claims that high-density inner-city living will help save the planet while suburban living sends us down the pathway to toast.
...Instead, they found that “place doesn’t matter.” Household income was the major variable. Families with the smallest carbon footprints are on lower incomes and live on the outskirts of town. The carbon footprint “criminals” are on high incomes, and live in “vibrant downtown communities”. Burning up all that midnight ethanol must pump out the CO2.
...The researchers had to declare that:
“Despite the lower environmental impacts associated with less car use, inner city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other aspect of consumption. … the opportunities for relatively efficient compact living appear to be overwhelmed by the energy and water demands of modern urban living. In each state and territory, the centre of the capital city is the area with the highest environmental impacts, followed by the inner suburban areas. Rural and regional areas tend to have noticeably lower levels of consumption.
...There goes the Smart Growth neighbourhood!
...Yet the ARC’s summary report of their decisions on Proposed Change 6 simply asserts:
Urban living is more transport efficient than rural living.
...Oh, really?
...Smart Growth has always been a policy in search of justification. It started out as a means of pricing blacks and Hispanics out of white enclaves in the US. It worked but proved “inappropriate”. Then Smart Growth would “save” rural land from urban growth. There is no such thing as “productive land” so it didn’t work. Then it would save us from the oil shocks. The shocks went away. Most recently it would deliver us from global warming.
...The Australian report knocks the props out of the carbon footprint argument.
...What will they come up with next? Central planners need some excuse to push us round.
MORE from the Archives: Urban Design, Global Warming, Environment, Property Rights


  1. Much, much better photo! Sex on wheels (referring to the car, not the driver, you understand).

  2. Rebecca Tinsdale15 Aug 2007, 12:12:00

    Kudos to the Australian researchers for presenting their findings faithfully. Hopefully their report will stand up to scrutiny and add to the set of data that informs policy makers.

    I'm not so taken with your apparent knee-jerk hatred of all things green and reflexive love of the free market, but then those are your political views, so we'll have to agree to disagree. Nice site.

  3. Rebecca

    Govt policy makers can't "get it right". To do that they would need omniscience and omnipotence. They would need to be all good, saints and prophets, holy santified men- all, each and every one. Pefect in ever way! They'd need to always be good for all other people all of the time.

    Aint ever happened. Aint ever going to.

    If you believe in the moral superiority of policy-makers (saints and cherubs and angels they be!) you are a religious nutter!

    The Little Green Man

    PS. It aint a matter of agreeing to disagree, either you're right or you're wrong- in which case your ideas need amending. Faith aint enough.


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