Thursday, January 10, 2008

Environmental Economics & the Average American

While on vacation this summer, I saw signs in various hotel rooms that I’d never seen before. Each bathroom, in both nice and moderate hotels spanning two different cities, had a sign urging me, for environmental reasons, to save water and reuse towels as much as possible. Use that hand towel for your whole stay, the sign asked, we’ll only pick up the towels you leave on the floor.

Cynically, I immediately thought that this was merely an attempt by the hotel industry to save money under the guise of environmentalism. But later I realized that the two weren’t mutually exclusive. It was both.

The problem with environmentalism isn’t awareness. More and more companies
are going green, both as an ethical and commercial shift. The environment continues to be a issue of substance in the presidential election. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth won an Oscar and landed him a Nobel Prize.

The problem isn’t irresponsible citizens either. The average American probably does care about the environment and doesn’t set out to harm it in any way. Here in our neighborhood, the houses’ recycling bins are full every week. Austin is full of people with canvas shopping bags hooked to the handlebars of their bicycles. We water our lawns less and dispose of our motor oil properly. But much of this is not all that difficult to do, and that is why we see it occur with such frequency.

The problem is money. While a person could spend an extra few thousand to buy a hybrid car when it’s time to get a new one, that is a lot of money with an immeasurable effect on the overall environment. Could a person buy credits to make his/her family carbon neutral? Of course they could, for about $21 an American can compensate for a mid range flight, but imagine taking a family of six on vacation. You’d add over $250 to the trip, which is a lot of extra money to fly back to Pittsburgh and see Grandma for Thanksgiving. And that will only keep you neutral for a holiday weekend.

I do understand one should never make the claim of only being one person, and therefore being unable to do anything of significance, but I think that the costs involved cause people to ask themselves this question. It shifts the burden to those who are willing to pay, an ethical problem to be sure, but one that is hard to get around.

As technology advances and one can live green for less and less, there will likely be a mass move in that direction. And as businesses, like those hotels on the eastern seaboard, find ways to save money and benefit the environment at the same time, we’ll see more and more of that, even if it isn’t as easily recognizable or transparent. Eventually, most people will move towards becoming proactive with their actions and spending, but until then the average American will likely care more about the green in his/her wallet.

1 comment:

Troy said...

Sure it is more expensive to "keep green," but I think the move toward a Greener America is, unfortunately, a fad. The fault here is with the lacking attention span of the average American, not with their unwillingness or inability to pay a little more. Already the Houston Chronical has printed letters to the editor where average Houstonians have stated that they are "tired" of having enviromentalism forced upon them.