Friday, February 19, 2010

Air Travel, Recycling, and Deciding What's Worth Doing

Air travel is, of course, terrible for the environment, especially in terms of climate change. As a guy who loves to travel, it is faintly ridiculous for me to point the finger at coal-fired power plants and other polluters, given the number of airplane trips I make in a typical year. Certainly I am on board with the economists' preferred solution, placing a price on carbon emissions via a Pigovian tax, so that polluters like me will be forced to pay for the cost of the damage that I do to the atmosphere whenever I fly, and to make less-polluting alternatives, such as trains and buses, more competitive in the marketplace.

I try not to think about this stuff when I'm lugging my recyclables out to the curb, especially on those frosty mornings when I'm about to head to the airport. Recycling is after all a relatively symbolic action when it comes to dealing with our long-term environmental challenges. I suppose it's better than nothing. On the other hand, the role that recycling plays in making people feel like they're "doing something" when they are, in fact, hardly doing anything, may end up doing more harm than good to the environment.

Green America has just released a study showing that the airlines are really bad at recycling. This is something I had noticed, and wondered about, before. It would be kind of cool if this was because the airlines were just taking the attitude, "What, you, the airline passenger, care about recycling now that you've just dumped several hundred tons of CO2 into the atmosphere? Don't make me laugh!" But as much as I wish that were the case, I kind of doubt it.

There's a constant tension, when it comes to making the world a better place, between acting in small, achievable steps, on the margin, and pushing for a root-and-branch restructuring of an entire system. As I've gotten older, I've become more oriented toward the marginal improvements, because, well, my time is starting to run out, and the graveyards are filled with men and women whose grand plans never got off the ground. But it's also possible, in some instances, that taking "small steps toward a much better world," as the blog Marginal Revolution advocates, can make us take our eyes off the ball.

One possible solution would be to divide one's time and efforts along the lines of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's investment strategy: he recommends putting 90 percent of your assets in safe, fixed-income government bonds and 10 percent in high-risk long-shot ventures. That way, you are protected from the bad "black swans" like the mortgage meltdown, while still giving 10 percent of your assets a chance to hit a home run with a positive black swan – the next Microsoft or Google.

Moving from asset allocation to time-and-energy allocation, such a strategy would mean that I put 90 percent of my time and effort into working on the margin – voting, writing letters, conversing with friends and relatives about my views, educating myself and others, attending rallies, doing electoral work, joining a mainstream political party – and 10 percent working for revolutionary change, in the mold of Jefferson and Madison, Douglass and Garrison, Anthony and Stanton, Gandhi and King. That way, given the strong likelihood that my revolutionary goals* will not be met, I will still be able to look back on my life and see that I helped push the world a little bit in the right direction.

*So what are my "revolutionary goals?" Gulp. It's been a while since I've thought about them (I'm just now coming out of a five-year period of political inactivity) and my ideas about the "ideal society" are pretty unformed at the moment. But as a starting point, I would say that the Scandinavian countries are farthest along the path that I think we ought to be on in terms of organizing an economy and society that is sustainable, equitable, free, and safe.


Jake Miller said...

Every time I find myself wanting to react to your posts on marginal change, I struggle with my words.

Lots of cliches and half-formed, mis-matched metaphors spring to mind, but nothing ever really coalesces.

(This applies to thinking and talking about real, possible revolutionary change in general, not just in relation to your blog posts.

I think this is probably a feature of the ideological/command and control culture we live in, rather than a flaw in my own mental processes:

Here types the middle-aged intellectual, still struggling to articulate a worldview and a plan to reach it.)

I feel like you've hit on a lot of important things in the past few weeks here on the blog and I'm looking forward to digging into them deeper as we go.

Here's one observation: I think the question you pose in the last graf is crucial: in order to get anywhere, we need to know where we're going.

This is perhaps even more important when you're talking about marginal, slow changes, because if you take a few steps this way, a few steps that way, and repeat a few more times, you're right back where you started.

There's one of those half-formed metaphors I warned about. At least I didn't mention the journey of a thousand miles...

Enough for now. I need to go empty the recycling bucket.

C - Log said...

So I'm reading the New Yorker profile of Paul Krugman that just went up today and on the very first web page we learn that he wrestles with this as well:

“When Robin and I started writing about health care, single payer was clearly the way to go. And then bit by bit you start saying, ‘O.K., you take what you can get.’ There’s a trap I’ve seen some people fall into—you let your vision of what should be get completely taken over by what appears possible right now—and that’s something I’m trying to avoid.”

Jake Miller said...

To me, it seems like the key is to keep in mind the ultimate goal and then to take steps both to move a little bit closer to that goal right now and to build power so that you can ultimately achieve your bigger goal.

Looking forward to seeing the Krugman profile.

Jake Miller said...

This brings me back to your earlier question about organizing the unemployed. You mentioned that UFE did a few workshops for the out-of-work in the last economic turndown, but that they didn't seem all that interested in learning the macro-economic roots of their troubles because they really just wanted jobs.

So an org like a UFE, that wants to tap into that pool of potential allies, needs to find ways to give the unemployed what they want (maybe not jobs, because UFE doesn't have that kind of resources, but links to mutual aid societies or local economy groups or "hour banks" that I have started hearing about recently or CSAs that need labor help at harvest time etc etc etc.

This is very challenging to do in a time when NGOs rely on foundation money and on being able to market themselves to donors as different from the other folks who are asking for financial support, but I think that's one of the knots that progressives will need to untie if we want to build real power and making significant, lasting change.

(And I am aware, of course, that most of my "helpful" suggestions probably wouldn't sound THAT much more interesting or uesful to most unemployed people than a macro-economics lesson. Consider them small steps, hopefully in the right direction.)

Anonymous said...

Cheeze Blog:

Touched a nerve or something... Would like to explore more your impression that recycling is something marginal. Our family has been routinely recycling over the past 5+ years thru the City of Chicago program. I estimate that we have diverted 2/3rds of our waste stream into the blue bin vs the trash. Is there some conventional wisdom or formula out there where we can assume what percentage of our recycling actually is recycled versus simply redirected to landfills? I'm certain that not everything directed to be recycled actually is... but I'm curious what you base your opinion on. Would love to be clued in, as I don't want to delude myself in recycling endeavors, particulary if the efforts are moot.

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