DRAFT: Think Locally, Act Globally; or, Invisible-Hand Environmentalism

(I’ve been sitting on this draft for years now and it’s still not done but apparently I linked you to it anyway!)

Latest way I put it, to David Ernst:

I think taxing bad things like pollution ought to be beloved by conservatives as an alternative to taxing good things like income, profits, sales, imports, and capital gains. Economists call it Pigovian taxes, or taxing externalities, when you tax harmful byproducts of free trade. Which can be social and economic as well as environmental. In my opinion no free market doctrine can make any kind of sense without Pigovian taxes as a fundamental tenet. There are so many things that liberals and conservatives argue about that Pigovian taxes just magically resolve into the best of both worlds!


[Possible lead-in: Why do we poop in potable water?]

Suppose we have a global problem that we need everyone to pitch in and help with. It involves massively complicated calculations and tradeoffs. What if there were a way we could break those calculations apart so that each person could solve a bite-sized piece that involved only themself? This is the miracle of the Pigouvian Tax.

If you’re a tree-hugging hippie you may scoff at the idea of “tradeoffs” with respect to the environmnet. Let’s assume the most fanatical environmentalists are dead right. The argument still holds. For example, how do you decide if it’s worth flying to a conference on environmentalism? Or which hybrid car is really greenest, factoring in all the manufacturing processes? No matter what your utility for environmental conservation, tradeoffs are everywhere.

The admonishment to Think Globally is useless.

How do I know whether enough carbon is emitted by driving 50 miles to the farmers market to negate the positive environmental impact? Is it environmentally irresponsible to fly to Europe? What’s a good enough reason?

The combination of Pigouvian Taxes and the free market allow you to think locally yet take the globally appropriate actions.

Hence the Pigouvian tagline: Think Locally, Act Globally!

(Pronunciation note: Pigou rhymes with Magoo, as in Mister.)

See also:

Example of something that drives me nuts:

  1. Paper cups cannot be recycled. The glue that holds the parts of the cup together cannot be removed in the recycling process.
  2. To make a paper cup, chemicals such as chlorine, sodium hydroxide, bleach, sulphuric acid, sulphur and limestone are needed. These chemicals are not recycled. In total about 1.8g of these chemicals are needed per cup.
  3. Using ONE cup for coffee/water every day, you create 23 lbs of waste each year.
  4. 6.59 million trees would be saved if everyone stopped using paper cups.

So I’m destroying the earth by using paper cups? The above is really not helpful. Could you quote similarly scary-sounding statistics about the water and soap used in washing dishes? The paper cup story just makes it feel like it’s all hopeless. Or that environmentalists are out-of-touch alarmists. Which I don’t think is a fair characterization or I wouldn’t be writing an article about how to make environmentalism more effective!