“Which Is Greener?”

Rand Simberg discusses discusses John Tierney’s NYT column in which Tierney compares the amounts of energy used in “green” and “not green” transportation. Tierney argues that green transportation methods may use more energy than do automobiles and other high-tech vehicles, whose use environmentalists want to discourage.

But really, most of these calculations are worthless because they do not take account of the value of people’s time. How can you compare the relative efficiencies of different processes if you don’t consider the value of a significant input in those processes? You can’t — unless you are homo antieconomicus, a modern environmentalist, and therefore place great value on every natural thing except humans and the things they create. But I digress. People using cars for short trips makes sense because people are productive, and the more productive they are, the more costly it is for them to be delayed by slow, cumbersome transportation. It does not make economic sense for Bill Gates to ride his bicycle to the office. Nor does it make sense for central planners to decide how different individuals should travel, because no individual or organization has enough information to make such decisions for others (see: communism, failure of).

The sensible way to handle such issues is to allow prices to fluctuate, and by fluctuating to communicate the current relative values of various inputs. Then everyone can accurately evaluate his own unique set of costs and benefits and make the best decisions for himself and, in the aggregate, society. (Note that we’re not talking about externalities here, but rather about production costs for goods and services that we use in our travels from place to place. Most of these costs are fully internalized in the prices of the respective goods and services.) But such individual decisionmaking is anathema to the control freaks of the enviro Left, for whom your time spent walking to the store counts for nothing, so they create rituals of correctness to enforce their norms on everyone else. You must recycle/bicycle/carpool/use mass-transit/save energy/etc. And it’s all bullshit — or, more precisely, a con job to get you to follow someone else’s preferences which, too often, are unexamined.

Tierney’s argument is a step in the right direction. It would have been a much better argument if he had raised questions about whether cost/benefit comparisons of various transportation methods can be made without considering the value of people’s time, and about whether such analyses can even be made by anyone besides travelers themselves.

4 thoughts on ““Which Is Greener?””

  1. Environmentalist don’t value people’s time because the primary purpose of environmentalism is dominate and control other people. Forcing people to alter their behavior so that they spend a lot of time doing something they would prefer not to is the entire point of the exercise.

    Cost is an excellent proxy for total energy consumption. Since most environmental schemes cost more than the conventional alternatives (which have been squeezed into optimal forms by the market), I think it safe to bet that most “green” techniques actually do more harm than good.

  2. You’re entirely correct that much “environmental” analysis completely ignores the value of people’s time. Partly this is due to the desire for control, as Shannon says; partly, it’s due to the fact that energy & CO2 are *fashionable* right now, and trend-followers tend to ignore whatever is not fashionable. The same phenomenon can be seen in certain fad-driven corporations: for example, a company that is so obsessed with keeping its inventories low that it misses a lot of opportunities to actually sell things to people.

    Even within the limited objective of energy saving, it is actually quite difficult to analyze the energy impact of various alternatives. To the extent that the choices are made in the political system, the analyses tend to be conveniently oversimpified, as in the case of corn ethanol.

  3. In a case of, ain’t it a small world: I personally know the Michael Bluejay quoted by Tierney.

    I used to work with him at Apple. I somehow didn’t make the connection until my spouse pointed it out. The man does love bicycles and is one of he few people I’ve ever known who goes the extra, extra mile to practice what he preaches. He once told us how he repaired a rental property he bought by hauling supplies from Home Depot in a bicycle trailer. He once spent a couple of days in a hotel room in Phoenix, during the summer, with the air conditioning turned off. He tried to start a compost heap in the bottom drawer of his desk so the fruit peals from his all-organic lunch wouldn’t go to waste. The resulting sitewide memo banning mentioning that composting one’s desk was against site rule provoked many a “WTF?” type responses from those who already know of Michael’s little project.

  4. In case you haven’t noticed the weather outside, the mini-ice age that ended in the 1800s has returned. Average temperatures this year have dropped far enougth to wipe out the gains for the last 100 years!


    NOW WE NEED THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT TO SAVE CIVILIZATION. I suggest we start by burning all that rubbish about global warming AND perhaps Al Gore and his evil minions will apologize for helping destroy civilization.

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