Ethanol, produced by corn, “biomass,” cane sugar or other plant matter, is considered by many to be a great alternative to fossil fuels. They consider the origin to be more renewable (plants grow rapidly), the fuel to produce less pollution, the production to release fear “carbon emissions,” and as a bonus, it costs more so people might drive less.
Ethanol is so beloved by some that legislation to subsidize farmers who grew crops for biofuels was pushed through in many countries including Germany and the United States. It would save us from dependence on foreign oil, it would reduce pollution, and cars can run on plants, won’t that be wonderful? Some even argue that it would reduce gas prices because we could shake that oil addiction from the middle east and produce it here cheaply and efficiently!
The truth is, ethanol has its advantages. When burned, it pollutes less than straight gasoline, and it actually has a higher octane rating, making it produce more horsepower per weight than gasoline. It also burns somewhat cooler than straight gasoline.
These days ethanol is less popular, and you don’t hear so much about how great it is. BP isn’t running bright green ads with happy cars driving around on corn any more. But the legislation is still in place, the farmers are still growing corn to turn into fuel, and any attempt to stop this or repeal the legislation is met with exactly the same environmental claims and protests.
So what about these fuels, are they really that great? Are people who oppose ethanol just oil company stooges?
Greg Giraldo is dead now, but he was a very brilliant, very funny comedian. He was one of those comedians that all other comedians loved and thought was so hilarious but for some reason never really caught on or broke big.
He had a bit on biofuels in which he pointed out that for every gallon of corn ethanol, it requires two gallons of gasoline to produce. He noted the only reason corn ethanol is even pushed is because corn farmers want that sweet subsidy money. Al Gore not long ago admitted it wasn’t about the environment, but about kickbacks to farmers for political gain:
First generation ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small. […] One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president.
Every so often a politician will be honest.
The truth is, ethanol is not just a failure in every single category it was supposed to succeed, but a disaster. From food shortages to riots, to slavery and beyond, ethanol in all its forms is a horrific failure. Let us count the ways.
Christopher Taylor, “COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Ethanol and Biofuels “, Word Around the Net, 2014-04-25.
March 2, 2015
February 9, 2015
Convening to ring the alarm about global warming, our putative betters and would-be rulers gathered in Davos, Switzerland, filling the local general-aviation hangars with some 1,700 private jets. Taking an international commercial flight is one of the most carbon-intensive things the typical person does in his life, but if you’re comparing carbon footprints between your average traveler squeezed into coach on American and Davos Man quaffing Pol Roger in his cashmere-carpeted intercontinental air limousine, you’re talking Smurfette vs. Sasquatch. The Bombardier’s Global 6000 may be a technical marvel, but it still runs on antique plankton juice. The emissions from heating all those sprawling hotel suites in the Alps in winter surely makes baby polar bears weep bitter and copious baby-polar-bear tears.
The stories add up: Jeff Greene brings multiple nannies on his private jet to Davos, and the rest of the guys gathered to talk past each other about the plight of the working man scarf down couture hot-dogs that cost forty bucks. Bill Clinton makes the case for wealth-redistribution while sporting a $60,000 platinum Rolex.
The hypocrisy of our literally (literally, Mr. Vice President!) high-flying crusaders against fossil fuels — who overlap considerably with our high-living crusaders against economic inequality — is endlessly annoying if frequently entertaining. And there is something unseemly about enduring puritanical little homilies on how we need to learn to live with less from guys wearing shoes that cost more than the typical American family earns in a quarter. When that obnoxious Alec Baldwin character from Glengarry Glen Ross informs that sad-sack real-estate salesman that his watch costs more than that guy’s car, he was trying to provoke him into getting richer, to the tune of a Cadillac Eldorado or, if not that, at least the second-prize set of steak knives. But our modern progressive versions of that guy are even more obnoxious: They demand that we lower our expectations while they live lives of opulence that would have embarrassed the Count of Monte Cristo.
Out-obnoxious-ing a guy with Alec Baldwin’s smirking mug takes a lot of brass.
Kevin Williamson, “Davos’s Destructive Elites: ‘None of us is as dumb as all of us'”, National Review, 2015-01-25.
January 17, 2015
Joey DeVilla posted a few images comparing the dystopian future envisioned in Blade Runner with the modern cityscape of Beijing:
The crowded, dirty Los Angeles of 2019 featured in the 1982 film Blade Runner looks rather pristine compared to the real-life Beijing of 2015.
November 15, 2014
I’d heard that the Soviet navy had dumped some potentially hazardous nuclear wastes in the Arctic, but I didn’t realize just how much they’d dumped:
While Russia’s nuclear bombers have recently set the West abuzz by probing NATO’s air defenses, a far more certain danger currently lurks beneath the frigid Arctic waters off Russia’s northern coast — a toxic boneyard for Soviet nuclear ships and reactors whose containment systems are gradually wearing out.
Left to decay at the bottom of the ocean, the world is facing a worst case scenario described as “an Arctic underwater Chernobyl, played out in slow motion,” according to Thomas Nilsen, an editor at the Barents Observer newspaper and a member of a Norwegian watchdog group that monitors the situation.
According to a joint Russian-Norwegian report issued in 2012, there are 17,000 containers of nuclear waste, 19 rusting Soviet nuclear ships and 14 nuclear reactors cut out of atomic vessels at the bottom of the Kara Sea.
The K-159 went down in 2003 while it was being towed to the town of Polyarny — home of Russia’s primary shipyard used for servicing and decommissioning nuclear powered vessels — for dismantling. Nine sailors died trying to keep it afloat when a storm hit, ripping off makeshift pontoons welded to the side to ensure the porous rusting hull didn’t sink en route. Estimates place around 800 kilograms of spent uranium fuel aboard the K-159, according to Bellona.
“Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there are currently no concrete plans to raise [radioactive] objects, and potentially raising the submarine is a Russian responsibility,” said Ingar Amundsen, head of the section for international nuclear issues at the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA), a governmental body tasked with keeping watch over the nuclear threats in the Arctic.
October 2, 2014
In the early 1960s, the Soviet government decided the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya in the south and the Syr Darya in the east, would be diverted to irrigate the desert, in an attempt to grow rice, melons, cereals, and cotton.
This was part of the Soviet plan for cotton, or “white gold”, to become a major export. This temporarily succeeded, and in 1988, Uzbekistan was the world’s largest exporter of cotton.
The Soviet government made a deliberate choice to sacrifice the Aral Sea to create a vast new cotton-growing region in Uzbekistan. It was clearly quite successful, depending on how you choose to measure success.
The disappearance of the lake was no surprise to the Soviets; they expected it to happen long before. As early as 1964, Aleksandr Asarin at the Hydroproject Institute pointed out that the lake was doomed, explaining, “It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea.”
The reaction to the predictions varied. Some Soviet experts apparently considered the Aral to be “nature’s error”, and a Soviet engineer said in 1968, “it is obvious to everyone that the evaporation of the Aral Sea is inevitable.”
The drying-out of the Aral was not just bad news for the fishermen of the region: it was a full-blown environmental disaster, as the former lake bottom was heavily polluted:
The receding sea has left huge plains covered with salt and toxic chemicals – the results of weapons testing, industrial projects, and pesticides and fertilizer runoff – which are picked up and carried away by the wind as toxic dust and spread to the surrounding area. The land around the Aral Sea is heavily polluted, and the people living in the area are suffering from a lack of fresh water and health problems, including high rates of certain forms of cancer and lung diseases. Respiratory illnesses, including tuberculosis (most of which is drug resistant) and cancer, digestive disorders, anaemia, and infectious diseases are common ailments in the region. Liver, kidney, and eye problems can also be attributed to the toxic dust storms. Health concerns associated with the region are a cause for an unusually high fatality rate amongst vulnerable parts of the population. The child mortality rate is 75 in every 1,000 newborns and maternity death is 12 in every 1,000 women. Crops in the region are destroyed by salt being deposited onto the land. Vast salt plains exposed by the shrinking Aral have produced dust storms, making regional winters colder and summers hotter.
The Aral Sea fishing industry, which in its heyday had employed some 40,000 and reportedly produced one-sixth of the Soviet Union’s entire fish catch, has been devastated, and former fishing towns along the original shores have become ship graveyards. The town of Moynaq in Uzbekistan had a thriving harbor and fishing industry that employed about 30,000 people; now it lies miles from the shore. Fishing boats lie scattered on the dry land that was once covered by water; many have been there for 20 years.
So, tragic as all this is, what does it have to do with the clothing industry? The Guardian‘s Tansy Hoskins points out that due to the murky supply chains, it’s almost impossible to find out where the cotton used by many international clothing firms actually originates, and the Uzbek cotton fields are worked by forced labour:
The harvest of Uzbek cotton is taking place right now — it started on the 5 September and is expected to last until the end of October. The harvest itself is also a horror story, on top of the environmental devastation, this is cotton picked using forced labour. Every year hundreds of thousands of people are systematically sent to work in the fields by the government.
Under pressure from campaigners, in 2012, Uzbek authorities banned the use of child labour in the cotton harvest, but it is a ban that is routinely flouted. In 2013 there were 11 deaths during the harvest (pdf), including a six year old child, Amirbek Rakhmatov, who accompanied his mother to the fields and suffocated after falling asleep on a cotton truck.
Campaigners have also managed to get 153 fashion brands to sign a pledge to never knowingly use Uzbek cotton. Anti-Slavery International have worked on this fashion campaign but acknowledge that despite successes there is still a long way to go.
“Not knowingly using Uzbek cotton and actually ensuring that you don’t use Uzbek cotton are two completely different things,” explains Jakub Sobik, press officer at Anti-Slavery International.
One major problem that Sobik points out is that much of the Uzbek cotton crop now ends up in Bangladesh and China — key suppliers for European brands. “Whilst it is very hard to trace the cotton back to where it comes from because the supply chain is so subcontracted and deregulated, brands have a responsibility to ensure that slave picked cotton is not polluting their own supply chain.”
March 28, 2014
James Delingpole agrees that the most recent WHO report on deaths due to pollution is shocking, but points out where the press release does a sleight-of-hand move:
Even if you take the WHO’s estimates with a huge pinch of salt — and you probably should — that doesn’t mean the pollution problem in some parts of the world isn’t deadly serious. During the 20th century, around 260 million are reckoned to have died from indoor pollution in the developing world: that’s roughly twice as many as were killed in all the century’s wars.
Here, though, is the point where the WHO loses all credibility on the issue.
“Excessive air pollution is often a by-product of unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, energy, waste management and industry. In most cases, healthier strategies will also be more economical in the long term due to health-care cost savings as well as climate gains,” Carlos Dora, WHO Coordinator for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health said.
“WHO and health sectors have a unique role in translating scientific evidence on air pollution into policies that can deliver impact and improvements that will save lives,” Dr. Dora added.
See what Dora just did there? He used the shock value of the WHO’s pollution death figures to slip three Big Lies under the impressionable reader’s radar.
First, he’s trying to make out that outdoor pollution is as big a problem as indoor pollution. It isn’t: nowhere near. Many of the deaths the WHO links to the former are very likely the result of the latter (cooking and heating in poorly ventilated rooms using dung, wood, and coal) which, by nature, is much more intense.
Secondly, he’s implying that economic development is to blame. In fact, it’s economic development we have to thank for the fact that there are so many fewer pollution deaths than there used to be. As Bjorn Lomborg has noted, over the 20th century as poverty receded and clean fuels got cheaper, the risk of dying of pollution decreased eight-fold. In 1900, air pollution cost 23 per cent of global GDP; today it is 6 per cent, and by 2050 it will be 4 per cent.
But the third and by far the biggest of the lies is the implication that the UN’s policies on climate change are helping to alleviate the problem.
November 13, 2013
Ethanol was supposed to be an environmentally friendly substitute for gasoline, and it was renewable … but it’s not living up to promises:
With the Iowa political caucuses on the horizon in 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama made homegrown corn a centerpiece of his plan to slow global warming. And when President George W. Bush signed a law that year requiring oil companies to add billions of gallons of ethanol to their gasoline each year, Bush predicted it would make the country “stronger, cleaner and more secure.”
But the ethanol era has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today.
As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found.
Five million acres of land set aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined — have vanished on Obama’s watch.
Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil.
Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, contaminated rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can’t survive.
The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy. But the Obama administration stands by it, highlighting its benefits to the farming industry rather than any negative impact.
October 29, 2013
Several people have commented about the headlines proclaiming that the very first supercarrier had been sold for a princely sum of $1, but Strategy Page explains why even that token dollar was better than all the other options:
The U.S. Navy recently sold a decommissioned (in 1993) aircraft carrier (USS Forrestal) for scrap. The ship yard that will take the Forrestal apart (All Star Metals of Texas) paid the navy one cent ($.01) for the ship. That’s because this was the best deal the navy could get. That’s because it will cost many millions to take the ship apart in a legal fashion (being careful to avoid releasing any real or imagined harmful substances into the environment). The other alternative was to sink the Forrestal at sea. But this requires partial disassembly (to remove anything that could or might pollute the ocean), that would be even more expensive.
Since the 1990s, sending warships to the scrap yard has not been considered a viable alternative. It’s all about pollution, bad press, and cost. That was because of the experience with the largest warship to be scrapped to date, the 45,000 ton carrier USS Coral Sea. This ship took until 2000 (seven years) to be broken up. Thus, the new ecologically correct process was not only expensive but it took a long time. Then the navy discovered that the cost of scrapping a nuclear powered carrier like the USS Enterprise would be close to a billion dollars. This was largely the result of a lot more environmental and safety regulations. With so many navy ships (especially nuclear subs) being broken up in the 1990s, and all these new regulations arriving, the cost of disposing of these ships skyrocketed. This was especially true with carriers.
So for over a decade the navy just tied up retired ships and waited for some better solution to appear. That never happened. In fact, the situation has gotten worse. The navy only has one ship scrapping facility (Brownsville, Texas), so only one carrier at a time can be dismantled. Using official estimates of the time required to dismantle each of the biggest ships, it’ll take seven decades to get rid of the surviving conventionally powered carriers. Note also that the conventional carrier in the absolute worst shape, the USS John F Kennedy, is the one being officially retained in category B reserve (but only until Congress forgets all about her, of course). Name recognition really does count.
It gets worse. With the really vast number of single hull tankers being scrapped and large numbers of old, smaller-capacity container ships laid up and likely to be offered for scrap fairly soon, the market for difficult-to-scrap naval ships is going to shrivel and the price for scrap steel will drop. Efforts to get the navy to include the costs of disposal in the budget for lifetime costs has never caught on and now it’s obvious why not. The real nightmare begins with the first nuclear powered carrier (the 93,000 ton USS Enterprise), which began the decommissioning process in late 2012 (with the lengthy removal of all classified or reusable equipment). The cost of dismantling this ship (and disposing of radioactive components) may be close to $2 billion.
October 9, 2013
If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you’ll probably have picked up some of my disdain for the “OMG! China’s going to eat our (economic) lunch!” meme that is pretty much a copy-paste of the same worry over Japan in the 1980s. In Maclean’s, Colby Cosh explains why you shouldn’t put too much effort into worrying about the Chinese economic Colossus crushing us any time real soon:
What I always wonder when I encounter a China bull or a Chinaphobe — for they are two sides of the same coin — is this: Even if they think “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is economically superior to ordinary capitalism, where in China are the parallel cultural institutions to support prolonged capitalist-style growth? Maybe China doesn’t need reciprocal free trade to blow our doors off in the race to utopia. Maybe it doesn’t need untidy democratic quarrelling. One presumes it won’t need a high level of achievement in basic science, either, judging by the Nobels: It is well-documented that the Chinese civilian research establishment is awash in fraud and plagiarism, to say nothing of the destructive favouritism inherent to a one-party state.
Rowan Callick’s new book The Party Forever: Inside China’s Modern Communist Party makes a simple, compact judgment on the general state of Chinese higher education: Just look where the Party leadership sends its own children to university: the U.S. Another important leading indicator of cultural progress is press freedom, which, if history has anything to say on the matter at all, appears to be utterly integral to sustained prosperity. But Mainland China has no newspapers as we understand them; it is not even clear that the regimented, spoon-fed “reporters” there could assemble one, even if the Party would allow it.
The Diane Francises of the world would have us reject the relevance of the Soviet experience to China’s future, to the point of ignoring familiar Soviet themes that are increasingly apparent in China: the vast infrastructure projects standing unused in the middle of nowhere, the blind environmental despoliation, the dodgy economic statistics. Beyond mastery of trading, interior China has simply never possessed much of the cultural technique upon which the advanced stages of economic development would seem to depend. Hong Kong is the exception, but having taken it over, China shows little appetite so far for imitating its social openness and individuality — or for those of Taiwan or Japan or South Korea. It still requires a strange leap of faith to believe it possible for China to economically surpass these neighbours, and ourselves, without becoming a great deal more like us.
August 17, 2013
Matt Ridley debunks five common myths about environmental issues with fracking:
The movie Gasland showed a case of entirely natural gas contamination of water and the director knew it, but he still pretended it might have been caused by fracking. Ernest Moniz, the US Energy Secretary, said earlier this month: “I still have not seen any evidence of fracking per se contaminating groundwater.” Tens of thousands of wells drilled, two million fracking operations completed and not a single proven case of groundwater contamination. Not one. It may happen one day, of course, but there’s few industries that can claim a pollution record that good.
Next comes the claim that shale gas production results in more methane release to the atmosphere and hence could be as bad for climate change as coal. (Methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but stays in the atmosphere for a shorter time and its concentration is not currently rising fast.) This claim originated with a Cornell biology professor with an axe to grind. Study after study has refuted it. As a team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology put it: “It is incorrect to suggest that shale gas-related hydraulic fracturing has substantially altered the overall [greenhouse gas] intensity of natural gas production.”
Third comes the claim that fracking uses too much water. The Guardian carried a report this week implying that a town in Texas is running dry because of the water used for fracking. Yet in Texas 1% of water use is for fracking, in the United States as a whole 0.3% — less than is used by golf courses. If parts of Texas run out of water, blame farming, by far the biggest user.
Fourth, the ever-so-neutral BBC in a background briefing this week described fracking as releasing “hundreds of chemicals” into the rock. Out by an order of magnitude, Auntie. Fracking fluid is 99.51% water and sand. In the remaining 0.49% there are just 13 chemicals, all of which can be found in your kitchen, garage or bathroom: citric acid (lemon juice), hydrochloric acid (swimming pools), glutaraldehyde (disinfectant), guar (ice cream), dimethylformamide (plastics), isopropanol (deodorant), borate (hand soap); ammonium persulphate (hair dye); potassium chloride (intravenous drips), sodium carbonate (detergent), ethylene glycol (de-icer), ammonium bisulphite (cosmetics), petroleum distillate (cosmetics).
As for earthquakes, Durham University’s definitive survey of all induced earthquakes over many decades concluded that “almost all of the resultant seismic activity [from fracking] was on such a small scale that only geoscientists would be able to detect it” and that mining, geothermal activity or reservoir water storage causes more and bigger tremors.
July 11, 2013
An editorial in New Scientist (which I can’t quote from due to copyright concerns) claims that using a new “measurement” called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), human progress peaked in 1978 and it’s all been downhill since then. Anyone who actually lived through 1978 might struggle to recall just what — if anything — was better about 1978 than following years, but the NS editors do point out that the GDP measurement generally used to compare national economies doesn’t capture all the relevant details, while GPI includes what they refer to as social factors and economic costs, making it a better measuring tool for certain comparisons.
I can only assume that most of the economists who believe that 1978 was a peak year for the environment hadn’t been born at that time: pollution was a much more visible issue in North America and western Europe than at almost any time afterwards (and eastern Europe was far worse). Industry and government were taking steps to cut back some of the worst pollutants, but that process was really only just in its early stages: it took several years for the effects to start to show.
In the late 1970s, the world was a much dirtier, poorer, less egalitarian place than even a decade later: China and India were both much more authoritarian and had still not mastered the art of ensuring that there was enough food to feed everyone. Behind the Iron Curtain, Soviets and citizens of their client states in Europe were falling further and further behind the material well-being of westerners (and becoming much more aware of the deficit).
No matter how much emphasis you put on nebulous “social factors”, the fact that the world poverty rate — regardless of how you measure it — has been cut in half over the last twenty years, lifting literally billions of people out of near-starvation makes an incredibly strong case that the world is doing better now than at any time since 1978. You can prattle on all you like about “rising inequality”, but for my money it’s a better world where the risk of people literally starving to death is that much closer to being eliminated. Give me an “unequal” world where even the poorest have enough food and clean water over an egalitarian world where billions starve, thanks very much.
June 27, 2013
Willis Eschenbach at Watts Up With That:
Now, given that poverty is the greatest threat to the global environment, the inescapable conclusion is that the only way the global environment stands a chance is if poor countries can develop economically.
And that is why the anti-development, pro-expensive energy stance of the large environmental NGOs is one of the great environmental tragedies of our times.
Here’s the chain of causality:
1. Climate alarmists, with the strong support of the major environmental NGOs like Greenpeace and WWF, declared war on CO2.
2. The method that they chose to fight CO2 was to discourage fossil fuel use by making energy more expensive, using a combination of taxation, legislation, international pressure, and expensive subsidies to achieve that end. Obama’s War on Coal, announced today, is just one of hundreds of examples of the wealthy NGOs and the rich governments working to increase the price of energy.
3. Since energy is development, expensive energy keeps poor countries in poverty. When the World Bank denies loans for coal fired plants in India, the poor suffer … but the environment suffers more. Until they can afford to use coal and gas, they’ll run the country on wood … I refer you back to Figure 1 for how well that works out.
4. Expensive energy slows a country’s economic development, and as President Obama pointed out, people worried about money don’t pay attention to the environment.
This ends up in a bizarre position—the actions of the major environmental NGOs are ensuring continued environmental destruction in the developing world.
June 22, 2013
Matt Ridley explains why replacing natural gas (or even coal) electrical generation with biomass is an absurd “solution”:
Under the Government’s plan, biomass power stations will soon be burning much more wood than the country can possibly produce. There is a comforting myth out there that biomass imports are mainly waste that would otherwise decompose: peanut husks, olive pips, bark trimmings and the like. Actually, the bulk of the imports are already and will continue to be of wood pellets.
It is instructive to trace these back to their origin. Reporters for The Wall Street Journal recently found that the two pelleting plants established in the southern US specifically to supply Drax are not just taking waste or logs from thinned forest, but also taking logs from cleared forest, including swamp woodlands in North Carolina cleared by “shovel-logging” with giant bulldozers (running on diesel). Local environmentalists are up in arms.
The logs are taken to the pelleting plants where they are dried, chopped and pelleted, in an industrial process that emits lots of carbon dioxide and pollutants. They are then trucked (more diesel) to ports, loaded on ships (diesel again), offloaded at the Humber on to (yet more diesel) trains, 40 of which arrive at Drax each day.
[. . .]
Over 20 or 40 years, study after study shows that wood burning is far worse than gas, and worse even than coal, in terms of its greenhouse gas emissions. The effect on forest soil, especially if it is peaty, only exacerbates the disparity. The peat dries out and oxidises.
Yet the Government persists in regarding biomass burning as zero-carbon and therefore deserving of subsidy. It does so by the Orwellian feat of defining sustainability as a 60 per cent reduction in emissions from fossil fuels. As Calor Gas puts it: “This is a logical somersault too far, conveniently — for the sake of cherry-picking the technology — equating 40 per cent to 0 per cent.” (Calor Gas supplies rural gas and is understandably miffed at being punitively treated while a higher- carbon rival industry is subsidised. […]) Moreover, unlike gas or coal, you are pinching nature’s lunch when you cut down trees. Unfelled, the trees would feed beetles, woodpeckers, fungi and all sorts of other wildlife when they died, let alone when they lived. Nothing eats coal.
So, compared with gas, the biomass dash is bad for the climate, bad for energy security and dependence on imports, bad for human health, bad for wildlife and very bad for the economy. Apart from that, what’s not to like?
June 10, 2013
Michael Munger examines two of the most common myths about recycling:
Almost everything that’s said about recycling is wrong. At the very least, none of the conventional wisdom is completely true. Let me start with two of the most common claims, each quite false:
- Everything that can be recycled should be recycled. So that should be the goal of regulation: zero waste.
- If recycling made economic sense, the market system would take care of it. So no regulation is necessary, and in fact state action is harmful.
If either of those two claims were true, then the debate would be over. The truth is more complicated than almost anyone admits.
There are two general kinds of arguments in favor of recycling. The first is that “this stuff is too valuable to throw away!” In almost all cases, this argument is false, and when it is correct recycling will be voluntary; very little state action is necessary. The second is that recycling is cheaper than landfilling the waste. This argument may well be correct, but it is difficult to judge because officials need keep landfill prices artificially low to discourage illegal dumping and burning. Empirically, recycling is almost always substantially more expensive than disposing in the landfill.
Since we can’t use the price system, authorities resort to moralistic claims, trying to persuade people that recycling is just something that good citizens do. But if recycling is a moral imperative, and the goal is zero waste, not optimal waste, the result can be a net waste of the very resources that recycling was implemented to conserve. In what follows, I will illustrate the problems with each of the two central fallacies of mandatory and pure-market recycling, and then will turn to the problem of moral imperatives.
April 9, 2013
David Friedman comments on a controversial blog post by Steve Landsburg:
Steve Landsburg’s piece [link], responding in part to the Steubenville rape case, makes the same argument from the other side. We — at least Steve (and I) — don’t feel that the argument for banning pornography or contraception is a legitimate one. Our reason is that the “harm” in those cases is purely subjective — I haven’t actually done anything to you, so your unhappiness at my self-regarding behavior is your problem, not mine, and you have no right to use the legal system to make me conform to your wishes. And even if you argue that I have done something to you — acted in a way that resulted in your knowing what I was doing, knowledge that pained you — that doesn’t count, because “knowledge that pains you” isn’t injury in the same sense as causing you to get cancer is.
Which gets us to the part of Steve’s post that gives lots of people reason, or excuse, to attack him. Suppose an unconscious woman is raped in a way that results in no injury — in the Steubenville case, “rape” actually consisted of digital penetration. She only finds out it happened several days later, at which point the harm is purely subjective, consists of her being offended at the knowledge that it happened. Why is this different from the subjective harm suffered by the person offended at someone else reading pornography? It feels different — to me and obviously, from his post, to Steve. But is it different, and if so why?
That, it seems to me, is an interesting question, one relevant to both law and morality. It is ultimately the same question raised by Bork, although from the other side. Bork was arguing that the harm caused by the use of contraception and the harm caused by air pollution were ultimately of the same sort, that it was legitimate to ban pollution hence legitimate to ban contraception — his article was in part an attack on Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court case that legalized contraception, a fact I had forgotten when I started writing this post. Landsburg is arguing that rape that does only subjective harm is of the same sort as reading pornography that does only subjective harm (unlike Bork, it isn’t clear that he is thinks his argument is right, only that he thinks it interesting), that it is not legitimate to ban the reading of pornography hence not legitimate to ban that particular sort of rape.
I agree with both Bork and Landsburg that there is a real puzzle in our response to the legal (and moral) issues they raise. Hence I disagree with the various commenters whose response to the Landsburg piece was that it showed he was crazy, evil, or both.