Anti-Green BandwagonSat, 9th Feb '08, 1:25 am::

Green-Green-Green: Who doesn't like saving the environment? We humans have the audacity to pretend like we can "save" a planet with mass of 6 trillion-trillion kgs (that is six followed by twenty-four zeros) while we cannot even figure out an affordable way to harness solar power. Yet every company is now trying to be green. When a company goes "green" what they are really saying is that "from now on, as we continue to plunder the natural resources of a geological area like we have been for the past two centuries, we will print lots of pamphlets and brochures to show you exactly what used to be here so you can feel less guilty about buying our products."

Behind the brilliant feel-good marketing strategy is the plain and simple truth that production of any kind requires resources and despite every attempt to use renewable resources, in the end the environment is worse off. The only way to absolutely not harm the environment is to not live in a civilized society and wander around in small herds picking berries and hunting wild boars. I tried that once and while I would not recommend it, it was still better than my trip to Disney. So where is the happy, sustainable medium between blowing up the coral reefs and foraging for wild fruits? It is somewhere nobody wants to be. It is the no-electricity, no-Internet, no-running-water, no-healthcare, no-mass-production world that over half the population of the world wants to rise up from. The drought-ridden populace of Africa is sustainable, the flourishing Scandinavian or Latin American world is not, let alone United States, Australia, and continental Europe. As long as every single person in the planet strives to achieve a decent standard of living, there is absolutely no way to save the environment.

When the dear old grandma in the heartland of China wants to get running water, someone has to make the water pipes, tap, electric pump, power lines, and a billing system to measure how much water she uses. No matter how green each of the companies that produce these items are, they are magnitudes away from an earthen-pot filled with water from the nearby stream. Nobody wants elderly women to break their backs and suffer due to the lack of clean water but that is the cost of actually going green.

Driving bicycles instead of monster trucks is a good start but it still requires metal foundries, plastic fabricators, heavy machineries, and electricity and fuel to drive it all. Add to this the physical buildings that employees work in and the entire construction industry that built it all up. You can go from a truck to a cycle but you cannot go from consumption to no-consumption. If the companies truly want to go green, they should say "stop buying out products, and if you do, use them for as long as you can even if that kills our growth."

Despite every attempt to save the environment for the children of the 6.5 billion people on this planet today, we cannot do so while promising everyone a good standard of living. Even if we magically get a free never-ending renewable source of energy tomorrow, we will still have to dig up mountains and cut-down forests to supply the entire world with rocks, minerals, metals, wood, and habitable lands. That was fine when there were 10 million people on the planet but for 1000 times that population, there will be no green way out. There is no green solution to this problem because civilization and nature by their very definition are completely opposite. If we go too far in favor of civilization, we ruin nature. If we go too far towards saving nature, we ruin people's lives.

Pretending like we can achieve a healthy balance, which is what most companies going green seem to claim, is like saying "despite every single thing we do that inadvertently ruins the environment, let us cut back marginally in some instances and thump our chests loudly, proclaiming that it is a big deal." The entire movement of going green is a band-aid to the systemic cancer that is central to this whole issue - too many people wanting too many things. If every single means of production today went perfectly green, it would not achieve even a small percentage of what a moderate decrease in demand would.

So without running off into the wild, what can an environmentally-friend person do? Firstly, realize that no matter what you do, you are absolutely positively harming the environment by simply existing. The very fact that you breathe out carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, adds a tiny tiny bit to the problem of global warming. Secondly, accept that since you are part of the environment and have chosen to live a civilized life, there is no point in pretending that you can in any way, save the environment. No, don't even think about it. You are killing it just like I am, so please stop acting like you are in any way better than an SUV driver who eats baby pandas for breakfast. You and he use magnitudes more resources than the dear old lady in China as you both drive on the same roads, live in houses made of same materials, and shop in the same kind of big box grocery stores.

Even if you consume one-third of the fuel an average person uses, that is still infinitely more than not using any resources at all. Moreover, the fuel and resources you use may not be directly visible to you. For instance, the pain-relief medication you take that the SUV driver does not have to, was brought to mass-production at a cost of over a billion dollars, millions of which were spent on manufacturing equipment, printer paper for documentation and promotional purposes, a decade of clinical trials combined with laboratory testing on cute fuzzy lab rats, and intensive medical, quality, and safety training for all personnel involved in the entire chain. So stop trying to think that you are saving the environment while not doing anything substantially different from any other around you. Third, and this is the only one you have some control over, stop buying things you do not need and can live without. Replace real-life versions with online-versions. Loading a web-page of a news-article uses less resources than the same article in a printed magazine. Be careful here as this is the part that exemplifies the primary trade-offs between civilized and hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Should you read books printed on paper or idle away all night watching the stars? Should you stay at home and brush your hair all day or travel 1400 miles away to attend a film festival? A well-traveled, well-read, well-dressed person is bad for the environment by the very acts that defines them. So pick wisely. And most importantly, stop buying the "we love the bunnies and rainbows" marketing spiels by every company that is just trying to raise their quarterly sales figures.

Say a company sells 100 widgets at a cost of five dead penguins to the environment. Now they go green with 40% improvements in efficiency and only choke three penguins for the 100 widgets. If their green marketing strategy works and sales double from 100 to 200 widgets, they are now offing six penguins as opposed to five before. It does not matter if percentage-wise they are doing much better - environment works in absolute terms. They have one additional dead penguin AFTER going green because of a rise in the demand for their product. If they stole business from other non-green companies that desecrated seven penguins for each 100 widgets, it is indeed a net absolute-gain for the penguin population however, with a marginal rise in demand for their widgets over time as a result of their effective sales campaigns, they will be back to the old pre-green dead penguin total. The only thing going green can do is slow down the damage for a very short term. And that is basically what everything from the carbon-offsetting scam to food-as-fuel is all about - making negligible environmentally-friendly advances in the near-term so as to downplay the inherent crisis of incessant resource abuse that is paramount to our way of life outside self-sustaining hamlets.

Cities like those in Europe can plan better public transportation systems and encourage bicycle use but they cannot promote negative growth. No municipality organization wants people to move out of their city to go live in villages because that would mean lower tax-revenues and negative local GDP. Every public or private planning commission in-charge of saving the local flora-fauna has the primary goal of infusing growth while ensuring minimal direct damage to the natural landscape. That is akin to a doctor who rubs alcohol on a death-row inmate before emptying a syringe full of lethal chemicals. There is no balance that can be achieved in the long-term if the axiomatic goal is to favor the destructive course of action over the non-destructive one.

The brightest, most-compassionate minds of today are striving to achieve this balance between standard of living and preventing environmental abuse. Try as they might, the only real solution will come about naturally and at a tremendous cost to humanity sometime in the future. Recurring episodes of the traditional Malthusian Catastrophe have forever ensured that whenever the population grows beyond their own ability to feed and fend for themselves, there is a sharp rises in mortality rates that in the end, bring down the numbers to sustainable levels. Bluntly put, nature takes care of over-population by killing a large number of people. It could be the starving kids in Sudan or an infectious pandemic in a densely populated metropolis; advances in technology can go far in delaying this eventual catastrophe but they can never prevent it forever.

Prof. Albert Bartlett, a modern-day Malthusian or in other words a cynical, practical economist like me, often explains how the term "sustainable growth" is an oxymoron. He is the true genius that famously stated one of my favorite quotes of all time, "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." I wrote all of the above before reading his thoughts on long-term energy supplies (pdf). From the very beginning, I was quite careful about what I wrote as the last thing I want to do is sound like a pessimistic doomsday fearmongerer. But having read his article now, I feel oddly vindicated that my line of thinking was pretty much similar to his - too many people needing too many resources. He has a garnered lot of criticism, especially for voicing that over-population is to blame for depletion of resources. I usually try to stay away from the same claim mainly because the moment you mention "population control," people think of communist regimes mandating abortions on women with more than one child.

On the two sides of every debate, is a realist and an idealist. The realist sees how things are and calls a spade, a spade. The idealist reads the numbers and has a gut feeling that things are wonderful and will get better regardless of all the glaringly obvious problems. Idealists are great for leading daring expeditions in uncharted waters. Realists are great for making policies that minimize the gap between the number of single males and the number of single females in a country, so as not to cause a major uprising by the male denizens who cannot find a wife. Similarly, people can observe the status of the world as it is today, exponentially growing population with an arithmetically growing energy supply, and come to their own conclusions as to what will eventually happen. Will the go-green fad actually prove its effectiveness or will we continue down the road of oil wars and deforestation-related droughts and famines? You are welcome to let me know what you think.

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