Why Environmentalism is Here to Stay

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

plastic one?

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.

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