‘Feel-Good’ Environmentalism and Population Issues

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

December 23, 2013

All too many environmentalists are motivated more by feeling good about protecting the environment than actually protecting the environment.

An experiment reported on recently in the Los Angeles Times gives new meaning to the phrase “feel-good environmentalism.” The story’s headline is: “Two magic words make regular coffee taste better, study finds.”

Those magic words? “Eco-friendly.”

In research published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE, investigators asked people to sample two identical – but differently labeled – cups of coffee brewed in a standard coffee machine from the same batch of beans.

Researchers told the subjects that one of the two identical cups was made with "eco-friendly" coffee beans, whereas the other was not. Again and again, people who said they cared more about the environment rated the taste of the supposedly "eco-friendly" coffee more highly.

The experimental coffee-tasters had earlier answered a questionnaire that evaluated their attitudes toward environmental sustainability. Based on their responses, the subjects were divided into two groups: “high sustainability” and “low sustainability.”

Three-quarters (74%) of the high-sustainability tasters said they preferred the "eco-friendly" coffee to the "not-eco-friendly" coffee and rated its taste more highly. In contrast, the low-sustainability subjects rated the supposedly different (but actually identical) coffees more or less equally.

The good news from this study is that people concerned about the environment were actually willing to pay 25% more for the “eco-friendly” coffee, literally putting their money where their mouth is. The bad news is how easily they delude themselves.

This study relates to why a minority, but a growing number, of well-heeled and conscientious consumers is willing to pay a premium for organic or locally grown foods that are supposedly better not only for the environment but for the health of the consumer.

My own view is that green consumerism can indeed make a real difference on behalf of the environment. Moreover, people who make truly environmentally superior choices should and perhaps need to be rewarded somehow; at a minimum, they deserve “psychic income” – feeling good about themselves – for their sacrifices and appropriate choices.

Years ago, I used to lobby for “bottle bills,” or container deposit legislation, because I believed that people who “did the right thing” and returned instead of tossing their beverage containers should get their 5- or 10-cent deposit back as a modest reward or inducement, and those who didn’t should suffer this minor penalty. Several states, including Oregon, Vermont, Michigan, Maine and New York – but never California – adopted these measures, fought tooth-and-nail by the beverage industry.

Too often, however, the benefits of green consumerism are overrated. Moreover, unscrupulous opportunists take advantage of the growing demand for “eco-friendly” products and services through “green-washing” or passing their products off as green when they’re really just another shade of brown. It isn’t easy truly being green.

What about population? Unsurprisingly, it is typically given short shrift by many environmentalists and “eco-friendly” consumers. But since every additional person is an additional consumer of environmental resources such as energy, food, fiber, minerals, water, air and habitat, adding population through births or immigration is actually another form of boosting consumption.

A 2009 study by two Oregon State University researchers concluded that in the U.S., the “carbon legacy” or multi-generational greenhouse gas impact of foregoing an extra child is almost 20 times greater than many of the eco-friendly practices environmentalists love to promote, such as driving a fuel-efficient car, recycling or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.

Now we just need to make folks give themselves a pat on the back for this particular reproductive choice.

Unfortunately, it’s much tougher to feel good about saying no to tens of millions of prospective immigrants and telling them that their dreams of coming to America are less important than protecting America’s environment from overpopulation. This is the toughest sell of all. Yet it makes more of a real environmental difference than many of the “feel-good” choices enviros pat themselves on the back for.

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