Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Simple Question

Why do people pollute their environment?

30 comments:

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris M,
This is a fantastic question. At the most basic level, we pollute because everything we do involves some kind of waste (and some use of resources).
The answer becomes much more interesting when we begin to look at why we pollute more when we could pollute less. I think the largest drivers here have been ignorance and changing scales. If I don't understand the problems caused by the waste I generate, I have little if any motivation to mitigate this pollution. And, as a business grows or more people begin undertaking a certain activity, pollution that could (at an earlier, smaller scale) be absorbed by the environment crosses a threshold at which it becomes problematic. Businesses don't want to deal with this threshold, because it means internalizing a cost that they've historically passed-off on others. Consumers don't want to be left out.
As supply chains have become more globalized, people have unfortunately started to pollute knowingly (or by choosing ignorance) for financial reasons. Industrial countries have exported a variety of manufacturing processes to countries with lax or poorly-enforced environmental regulations in order to save the cost of managing their waste.
Regardless of our reasons, we have the power and plenty of reasons to pollute less.

Chris Crawford said...

Tragedy of the commons

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Chris C: "Tragedy of the commons" -- What does that mean?

Pat Jenkins said...

lazy lazy lazy.. but then again it depends on how you define polluting....

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Pat J: I think you are approaching the crux of the issue. An example -- a basic biological process. Each animal consumes food from which it extracts energy and various minerals. What remains is excreted. Is that excreted waste pollution? I would argue that it depends on where that waste is located. If in the back yard -- say from some small canine companion -- it is pollution. If mulched into the garden -- cow manure perhaps -- it is valuable fertilizer which provides necessary food for soil microbes, worms, etc. which then ends up as the essential vitamins and nutrients in the fruits of plants which can then be consumed by us. In that case it isn't pollution -- or is it?

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: In simpler terms, some pollution is an economic issue. Not polluting is "perceived" as more costly than capturing and utilizing waste.

I think much of our pollution comes from poor design. My son introduced me to a new type of chewing gum -- you pop it into your mouth wrapper and all. I can now enjoy that vice without throwing away the wrapper. Similar approaches need to be designed into more products.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris M,
If you haven't already read it, I can recommend Cradle-to-Cradle. One of the central themes of the book is the idea that natural processes are essentially devoid of useless waste (rather, wastes are simply inputs into other processes) and that industry should mimic these cycles. The authors cite some favorite examples, such as Ford's design of shipping crates for Model-T parts. The crates were dismantled upon delivery and used for the car's floor boards.

Chris Crawford said...

Sorry, Chris M. "Tragedy of the commons" is a term referring to the inevitable destruction of any resource held in common. It comes from the old English system of holding some land for the community to graze cattle on: "the commons". It worked so long as everybody in the village had just one cow for milk and manure. But inevitably some jerk would bring in a bunch of cattle and ruin it for everybody. Since there was no apparent solution to the problem, it was called "the tragedy of the commons".

Any resource that is commonly held -- such as the atmosphere or the oceans -- cannot be assigned to an owner. Without property rights, there's nothing stopping an individual from using the resource to as extreme a degree as he desires.

For example, if we could somehow assign rights to the atmosphere, so that each person's CO2 release caused global warming only for him and affected nobody else, our CO2 emissions would be vastly lower than they are today.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: I have read it -- I also assigned it to my future engineer son to read -- and he did.

Chris C. That is a very strong argument for private property rights.

Chris Crawford said...

Indeed it *is* a strong argument for private property rights -- but how do we assign rights to the atmosphere or the ocean?

Sue said...

As all the previous comments have suggested, this is a simple question, but the answers are not simple.
The process of life (all life)transforms both materials and energy into new forms. In a well-balanced ecosystem, much -- but never all -- of the transformed material and energy becomes inputs for other species. What is excess to one species (aspirated, expelled, expunged as waste) becomes the necessary resources of life for other species. Energy as it moves from sunlight to plants to animals always experiences some loss. At each and every step, some of the energy leaks away as heat, and cannot be recaptured for use. (The universe inexorably moves from higher orders of energy to lower orders of energy - entropy). But materials (with energy inputs)can cycle endlessly (C02 + sunlight to extract carbon for plant growth and repirates O2, to be breathed in by animals who then respirate CO2, and around the cycle again and again).

Problems only arise through imbalances -- when one species pass throughs (of either materials or energy) are greater than the input/absorption capacities of the species surrounding them. When a species, including humans, live in very circumscribed ecosystems, there are immediate feedbacks from that ecosystem to let them know their passthroughs are overloading the system (metaphorically speaking if you poison your own wells with sewage, you get sick and die or you have to move somewhere else).

The problem we encounter as humans become more technologically developed is the ability to shift the effects and the consequences further away from us, in both distance and in time. Our pass throughs of materials and energy may be making people sick and cause them to die, the immediate cause and effect is obscured by the distance between the origin and the consequence.

Understanding the connections becomes an intellectual exercise, whether than an immediate visceral experience of cause and effect. Althoguh humans have the capacity for understanding the abstract, the distant, and the intellectual through our language/culture (something that other species do not have), nonetheless we still tend to resist accepting causal connections between actions in one place and time with consequences in another place and time. Particularly since there are advantages to ignorning the connections. As Pat J. said, we're often "lazy," as Chris C. said "the tragedy of the commons," as Chris M. said "economic issues" may come into play.

To make an analogy -- if the minute we lit up a cigarrett we experienced stabbing pains in our chest and had difficulty breathing and the longer we smoked the worse those pains and breathing got, then almost no one would smoke cigarretts. But instead, smoking the cigarrett feels good, and the pain and difficulty breathing isn't likely to start for years, maybe decades, and for some percentage of smokers never. By the time the negative consequences begin to assert themselves the smoker is physically addicted to the nicotine, and feels worse when they try to quit then when they are smoking.

This discontinuity between cause and effect is made even more complex by the fact that most of the activities of passing through materials and energy are benign, ordinary consequences of the life process, and not "pollution." It is often hard to pinpoint exactly where the line is drawn between passing through material and energy that can be absorbed and used by other species and that which exceeds the capacities of ecosystems to process. Again as humans we have expanded the physical distance and the time distance that our passthroughs move from us, making it even harder for us to gauge where the line between benign and problematic lies.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris C,
We do so by means of a permanent trust fund. Polluters pay into the fund. Individuals can withdraw funds for things like health care or education.
As benevolent despot, I set the fees and disburse funds.

Chris Crawford said...

ERD, your trust fund is operationally very similar to pollution tax. I too believe that we should simply factor the environmental costs of behavior into a tax. Indeed, I favor this kind of tax (economists have a name for it) as a replacement for income tax. Instead of taxing people on the wealth they generate, tax them for the damage they do to the commons.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris C,
At the risk of sounding like a miserable little bureaucrat, I prefer user-fees to taxes. The nominal difference is that user fees seek to substantially finance some activity or offset the public costs of an activity by exclusively (or almost exclusively) charging those people and firms who engage in the activity.
I had a friend in school who used to gently gripe about this over beer. She lived in NYC, didn't own a car, and worked hard to buy vintage and used goods. She didn't like that her coworkers who drove an hour and a half each way to work from Jersey paid the same federal taxes for highways, even though she hardly used highways at all. She wanted to see fees on gasoline and toll roads pay for almost all of it. For my part, I think taxes are a reasonable source of start-up costs, but I largely agree with her. We need to be careful to make fees on pollution fit the situation and adjust other taxes accordingly.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Chris C: I can't begin to imagine the bureaucracy necessary to monitor each and every person's "damage" to the environment. Our economy would collapse.

Chris Crawford said...

It is sometimes possible to closely link a tax to a use, the best example being road use. You can't do it without fuel, and so having a fuel tax pay for road use is an excellent approach. The only weakness lies in differential road pricing: if you want to restrict road use in, say, downtown, then fuel taxes won't accomplish that.

Chris M, there's no need to tax EVERY possible harm done to the environment, but there are some undesirable activities for which a tax would be directly proportional to the harm done. A carbon tax is a direct way to tax carbon emissions. If we were to discover that, say, Internet communications were polluting the environment, then we could tax Internet communications by the bit and get a close match. But there are also plenty of places where such a tax would backfire. A garbage tax, for example, would simply lead to garbage being illegally dumped.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris C,
Fuel charges won't, but fuel charges and toll roads will.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: I hate toll roads....

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris M,
I hate paying for roads I hardly use.

E. R. Dunhill said...

...My father has never had a driver's license. Why should he pay the same thing for roads as someone who communtes 90 minutes each way to work?

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: Concerning your father -- Does he eat? Does he buy clothes? Or, does he raise or produce everything that he consumes on his own land? If not, he uses those roads.

As to the commute, I understand your point however, fuel taxes are plenty high in most states because of road use taxes. Use more fuel, pay more tax. Automobile taxes in some states/school districts (personal property taxes) also are applied to roads.

Commuters pay a price for their commute. It costs fuel, time, stress. Yes, their cars produce more exhaust fumes, they consume more gasoline. Their higher transportation costs are offset by quality of life issues that caused them to choose their residence location.

What bugs me about toll roads in unfamiliar areas is that you don't know what they're going to cost you until you've completed the trip. Some get you 4 or 5 times before you get to where you are going. Some of the new ones around Austin, Texas, are the worst I've ever seen about that. You pay tolls every few miles unless you have purchased a pre-pass. I understand the concept -- and it's probably a good way to handle commuter traffic in cities, but they're a pain-in-the-backside for folks just passing through or visiting. As a business traveller on company business I have to keep up with the receipts and turn them in as business expense or just "eat" the out-of-pocket cost because it's so much trouble to deal with otherwise.

What is the nuisance factor worth? :)

Sue said...

Chris M -- I really agree with you! The first activity I do in my Intro sociology class is ask students "how many people helped you get to school this morning?" Most of them say some where between zero and two (usually parents or a spouse). So I ask them if they made the clothes they are wearing, if they raised the food they ate, if they built the car/truck they rode in to school, if they paved the roads that got them to school, etc. As you suggested if you eat anything that you didn't grow yourself, you benefited from the existence of roads -- especially interstate trucking routes. Even if you bought your food from a farm that you could walk to across the fields (wow-- that brings back some childhood memories!), you'd still be dependent on roads, because the farmer got feed and fertilizer, and fuel for the tractor (not to mention the tractor itself), seed, and a lot of other things that traveled on roads.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris M,
If we used more toll roads instead of blanket taxes, the cost of goods would reflect the tolls. Consumers, as indirect users of the roads, would pay for their relative demand on infrastructure.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: If that was the case I'd have really cheap food and you'd pay out the nose for it! Ah, the country life. Us hicks-in-the-sticks still have some advantages over y'all city slickers!

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Sue: Our wonderful (albeit aging) infrastructure is at least partly why this country enjoys such economic blessing! Nice to be in agreement (at least on some level) for a change.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris M,
Wouldn't that be fair? After all, I place a greater demand on highways for such goods.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: It might be fair, but not necessarily wise. The same issue affects manufactured goods going the other direction.

Costs for infrastructure are distributed for a reason. They are for the public good.

We pay a user tax -- it's called Income tax (regional income disparities). It's called sales tax. It's in the price of goods which include transportation costs.

City dwellers and country dwellers face many disimilar problems. A big one is transportation. In the country, because the population is not concentrated, mass transit doesn't work. I know some farmers that may drive 150 miles or more, daily just getting around their various farms to oversee operations. They have no way to build that cost of transportation into the price they receive for their produce. They take what the market offers. Good roads are one of the public costs for cheap food. But then we enter into a whole new realm of discussion over subsidies for farmers.

Chris Crawford said...

Chris M, you don't seem to have much faith in the market:

"They have no way to build that cost of transportation into the price they receive for their produce. They take what the market offers."

Why not? The market is a two-way street. If the seller cannot make a profit suitable for his efforts, then he goes out of business.

I would prefer to let the market handle all such determinations. The argument that non-drivers benefit from roads is a black-and-white argument; some non-drivers benefit more, some less. The way to gauge it correctly is to have a complete use charge (either by making every road a toll road, which is impractical, or by charging a fuel tax) that covers all costs of building and maintaining roads. Then let the shippers fold the cost of the fuel tax into their shipping costs. Everybody ends up paying in direct proportion to their benefit from the road system.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris M,
To be clear, I don't believe that fees on gasoline and toll roads should be the sole source of funding for roads. For instance, I think this is a fairly poor way to finance new construction. I believe the use-driven revenue streams should comprise a greater percentage of operating/maintenance costs than they currently do. That percentage doesn't have to (shouldn't) remain the same over time or geography. And exceptional situations warrant exceptions.
However, when we partially couple cost to usage, we encourage efficiency. This also means that urban centers near state boundaries don't bear a disproportionate piece of maintenance costs. Most people who work in DC, for example, actually live in MD or VA. Their state and local taxes do nothing to maintain the infrastructure they use daily.

Chris Crawford said...

ERD, why do you believe that fuel and registration taxes should not pay 100% of the costs of roads? I realize that I'm on thin ice taking the extreme position of advocating 100% funding via fuel taxes, but it seems theoretically sound to me.