Reverse Greenwashing; or, It’s Not Easy Being Green
Part of the reason it is difficult to advance environmental protection policies is that it is difficult to inform and educate oneself on environmental issues. The issues have substantial scientific components, usually requiring specialized knowledge. Because humans live in the environment and most all of our actions affect the environment in some way, environmental proposals also often have the feature of affecting these many areas of our lives. By contrast, the conventional way of thinking about most types of legislative proposals– for example, health care, narcotic policy, or foreign policy– is that they are compartmentalized, directly comparable only as to their price. Environmental policies typically require expenditures too, but they are not so easily compartmentalized, and their effects more apparently spill over to other areas of policy and life. This results in incentives for and allegations of the politicization of science, which feeds back into the initial point: it is difficult to inform and educate oneself on environmental concerns, and this is an impediment to effective policy decisions. Typically, these informational hurdles result in inaction, but they also can result in bad policy. Federal ethanol subsidies– which had many unintended, negative consequences while failing to achieve environmental benefits– are an example of the latter. See here; see also here.
Because the public environmental conversation is about the underlying information itself, rather than mere policy alternatives, and because the underlying facts, theories, data, and other information are shifting, incomplete, and contested, a proposition merely needs to sound convincing to be convincing, and just a little bit of information goes a long way. For example, I have argued that more breweries ought to package their products in cans, rather than bottles, because aluminum cans block beer-destructing light better than even brown glass bottles and are much more amenable to recycling than colored glass. Does this theory hold water (or beer), environmentally or fermentologically? It sounds good, but I don’t know for sure. Some breweries recently have adopted canning for reasons similar to these, while others decided to keep bottling after rejecting canning on the basis of other environmental and consumer information. Compare this and this with this.
There seems to be at once a lack of information and an overabundance of it when it comes to environmental issues, and everything is contestable by anyone. (It is easy enough for anyone to undermine the findings of a rigorous study by an esteemed scientist with a simple charge of political or financial bias: “Well of course her study supports the existence of global warming. If it wasn’t real, she’d be out of a job. Plus, look who’s funding her grant!”). Cf. here. It is not surprising, then, that something like greenwashing would arise. Generally, greenwashing is the false presentation of an environmentally friendly image for gain. See, e.g., here and here. Made possible by the informational confusion surrounding environmental issues, greenwashing typically is an active practice that attempts to garner goodwill and market share for consumer products and services based on a false “green” image, although examples of passive greenwashing exist as well. These misinformation campaigns prey upon those who genuinely are eager to make environmentally conscious choices but, like most everyone else, find it difficult to verify an entity’s environmental claims or grasp accurately environmental issues more broadly. Legitimate counterarguments to pro-environmental positions exist, but just like pro-environmental statements (both genuine and specious), they easily can misdirect and confuse and are difficult to evaluate. A letter to the editor the Wall Street Journal printed last month provides an example.
Regarding Margo Thorning’s “Pull the Plug on Electric Car Subsidies” (op-ed, March 24): Finally, someone gets sensible about electric cars. They don’t protect the environment. They are less efficient than gasoline cars and generate a lot more carbon dioxide per unit power. The engineering is straightforward. From power plant to the road, electric cars are only a little more efficient than their gasoline equivalent. This ignores the need for heat and the lessened efficiency of batteries when the temperature drops. Even this small gain is negated by the extra battery weight. The very considerable energy needed to produce the battery almost always goes unmentioned. As Ms. Thorning says, “half of all U.S. electricity is generated by coal,” which produces more CO2 per unit of delivered energy than does petroleum or natural gas. The electric car does not “protect the environment,” it hurts it badly if one considers the production of CO2 as detrimental. Of course, this is the viewpoint of an engineer. Environmentalists have a moral approach. Morality trumps thermodynamics in today’s political milieu.
Ken Cowans Fullerton, Calif.
Letters to the Editor, The Wall Street Journal A 18, Weds. March 30, 2011. Cowans’ letter was the lead letter that day, ahead of one responding to the same article from Robbie Diamond, identified as the President and CEO of the Electrification Coalition. Besides the slightly ambiguous self-identification (“this is the viewpoint of an engineer”), a reader has little basis on which to evaluate the authority of Cowans’ claims– and Cowans made a number of bold, sweeping claims. (This appears to be an example of the problematic practice of giving equal footing to opposing views, even though one view may be a decided minority position, thereby distorting the discourse. See here.)
Not everyone agrees that science can or should transcend politics, but when even the well-intentioned regularly find themselves misinformed or otherwise uncertain, some kind of authoritative arbiter of information or informative arbiter of authority would seem necessary. Uncertainty in a particular field alone does not indicate a problem, especially where information is scant. Where information is plentiful, however, a persistent uncertainty can lead to frustrating paralysis and, when policy makers do eventually take action, as in the ethanol subsidy situation referenced above, low-quality outcomes can result.