Kevin Maney reckons that environmentalism
is a short-lived fad, and that Americans will keep on upping their consumption
of bottled water and other environmentally-unfriendly products. I’m more optimistic
than he is, however.
Kevin sees environmentally-friendly behavior as making a virtue out of a necessity
– that it’s a function of economic slowdown.
The current green fad will have a nice little run, thanks to subprime-mortgage
reverberations: Breakouts of environmentalism track with economic slowdowns,
according to Gerald Celente, who runs the Trends Research Institute. We conserve
when we must and then tell ourselves our sacrifice is helping to save the
world. The human brain can twist anything.
But empirically speaking, I just don’t see this. Environmentalism is strongest
in the fastest-growing parts of the US, such as California, and weakest in the
most depressed parts, such as Michigan. Environmentalism has become commonplace
in economically-resurgent northern Europe, and is stronger in fast-growing countries
like Germany than in slower-growing countries like France. And in any case,
environmentalism is not always, or not only, about sacrifice. What kind of sacrifice
am I making if I use a cotton bag to carry my groceries, rather than a wasteful
Cutting back on bottled water also entails little sacrifice: in fact, it saves
a lot of money – and carbon. That’s a real savings, by the way: Kevin
is wrong when he says that "if gas prices fall as a result of a drop in
demand for PET, Americans will only buy more S.U.V.’s and suck up the
difference". For one thing, gas prices don’t necessarily track oil prices:
right now, oil is hitting new record highs, but gas prices are still substantially
lower than their peaks. But in any case there’s no indication at all that oil
prices will fall at all as a result of lower demand for PET. The oil will simply
go into more economically-productive uses, such as manufacturing in China, rather
than something pointless like a container for filtered tap water.
The Nobel Prize for Al Gore is just the latest sign that environmental consciousness
is here to stay. If you look at any advanced economy in the world over the past
few decades, it’s clear that green thinking has been getting slowly but steadily
stronger and increasingly mainstream; the US might be behind the curve, but
it’s no exception to that rule. The US now emits less carbon per dollar of GDP
than it ever has in the past, and that number will continue to fall for decades
to come. And one way that’s going to happen is that people are going to buy
fewer bottles of water.