U.S. Congress Offers Environmentalism for Dummies

In case you are visiting the Congressional gift shop, you might want to pick up the “Green Living” wheel which offers tips on how to live a more environmentally friendly life. Emblazoned with “U.S. House of Representatives” at the bottom, the cardboard wheel can be turned to reveal bits of environmental wisdom in a cutout window. The bits of advice, however, range from the simplistic to incorrect.

Here are a few examples of the advice being offered by a well-meaning U.S. Congress through the powerful vehicle known as “the gift shop.”

“Turn heat down at night and when you are away from home.”
If you need to buy this little cardboard wheel to figure this out, you probably are not capable of finding your way to the Congressional gift shop in the first place.

“Do not use disposable razors, pens or other items that have permanent options.”
I have a reusable ink pen, but short of everyone returning to quills, I’m not really sure how this is feasible. It also ignores that while the razor and pen case may be re-used, you still discard the blades and ink cartridges. This isn’t likely to make much of a difference in the global scheme of things.

“Use digital cameras instead of film cameras. Hazardous chemicals are used to process film. Avoid disposable cameras.”
This wheel was published in 2008. My question is, where would one even find a film camera in 2008 or 2012? Practically everyone has a digital camera in their pocket these days and don’t need to buy disposable cameras any more. This is a good example of the technology from the free market eliminating what might previously have been an environmental concern.

“Use voice mail instead of an answering machine. Answering machines use energy when plugged in & ultimately end up in landfills.”
Again, I don’t even know where I would find an answering machine today. Maybe I could sort through a local landfill.

“When traveling choose an eco-friendly hotel, they use less water and less energy.”
I don’t understand this. Are there hotels that intentionally waste water and energy? I do enjoy the cards at hotels that encourage me to re-use towels “for the planet” when their motive is really to cut down on laundry costs. Hotels already have a strong incentive to cut costs associated with using water and energy, and my guess is that every hotel wants to use less water and energy.

“Purchase locally when possible. It conserves energy that would be used to transport goods.”
This is actually bad advice and may do more harm than good to the environment. Transportation is only about 10 percent of the energy used in food production and ignoring the other 90 percent to make small improvements in the 10 percent is foolish. Growing food where it is most appropriate is a far more responsible use of resources than worrying about the final distance a food product travels.

Add all of these eco-fads together and the environmental impact will be extremely tiny or even negative. Like so much of the environmental movement these days, these steps are primarily designed to give people a sense they are helping the planet and making them feel good about themselves. That is the real value of such facile recommendations — to inculcate a sense of mission and participation in a movement larger than you.

By way of contrast, technology that emerged from the free market made a couple of these recommendations irrelevant. The price signals of the free market made others extremely obvious.

Given the choice between trendy environmental moralizing and free-market incentives to do more with less, the planet (like people) chooses the freedom and personal responsibility of the free market.

Come to think of it, maybe it is better if you don’t buy a “Green Living” wheel. It will just end up in the landfill.

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