Why most ‘green technology’ pushes miss the mark 

Dave Roberts, at the liberal environmentalist website Grist, has a good blog post with one very important point (even if he uses some more sophisticated language than I would use):

“Efficiency” is the wan term for what gets overlooked. “Resource intelligence” would be better: achieving a better quality of life using fewer primary resources. Many of the changes that will get us there are shifts in the way we order our affairs and structure our physical surroundings, not just new technology but new ways of arranging the available pieces to get more of what we want with less waste.

If I’m getting his point right, I’d tweak it a bit and say this:

People who care about conserving resources and reducing pollution (which I do) shouldn’t simply ask “how can we do more efficiently what we’re already doing?” They should ask, “what might we do differently to accomplish the same goals while consuming less?”

The simplest example is that instead of just getting a more fuel-efficient car to drive to work, why not work from home more? To generalize a bit: instead of asking how we can drive more efficiently, step back and ask a more fundamental question: how can we more efficiently accomplish what we use cars to accomplish?

We can get our groceries delivered (one truck carrying 50 homes’ groceries is more efficient than 50 folks driving too and from the grocery store). We can live closer to our office, or work closer to our home. We can allow folks to build stores in walking distance of more homes. We can ride the metro, of course.

But politicians and policy experts often ask narrower questions (How can we make cars more fuel efficient? How can we make gasoline less polluting?) and thus propose more narrow policy fixes, such as fuel efficiency standards or MTBE or ethanol mandates. Of course, when people have more fuel efficient cars they often drive more, thus mitigating the gains.

This problem is an argument for a freer market. However creative our policymakers and think-tankers are, they’ll never be able to conceive of as many ways to enhance efficiency as can millions of people acting independently. So, the best way to address the overconsumption of fuel is to make sure government isn’t obscuring prices in this area: stop subsidizing roads, stop subsidizing drilling, stop subsidizing sprawl, stop bailing out automakers and thus subsidizing them. At the same time, let’s liberalize zoning laws and repeal some policies that prevent people from operating their own businesses.

Freer markets will yield efficiency better than more subsidies, taxes, and mandates.

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Timothy P. Carney

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