Overthinking: December 2008 Archives


December 29, 2008

One of Slate's odder sections is the "Green Lantern", where they take on some simple question like "should I buy a natural or artificial Christmas Tree" and try to analyze it from an environmental perspective. The most recent article asks whether you should throw away your leftovers or flush them down the garbage disposal. Unfortunately, the articles tend to be pretty useless: sometimes they have a real answer but often they thrash around for a while giving you the pros and cons of each option and conclude that maybe you should do A and maybe you should do B:
The research is unambiguous about one point, though: Under normal circumstances, you should always compost if you can. Otherwise, go ahead and use your garbage disposal if the following conditions are met: First, make sure that your community isn't running low on water. (To check your local status, click here.) Don't put anything that is greasy or fatty in the disposal. And find out whether your local water-treatment plant captures methane to produce energy. If it doesn't--and your local landfill does--you may be better off tossing those mashed potatoes in the trash.

Or maybe not... Here's another example:

If these ideas don't excite you, the Lantern recommends putting the new cash toward insulating your family's home. Of course, whether this makes sense depends on your local climate and whether you buy or rent. (Likewise, the current state of your home will determine just how much insulation your $100 will buy.) For the rest of you, it might be wisest to replace any antiquated, energy-inefficient appliances you might have--along the lines spelled out here. (Let's put aside the complicated question of carbon offsets, which will be addressed in a future column. Suffice to say that they wouldn't be the Lantern's first choice.)

I'm not saying I can do any better; rather I think this is reflective of a systemic problem with this kind of overall cost/benefit analysis. While it's possible to measure the power consumption, carbon emissions, etc. of any particular microactivity, it's pretty hard to do an overall cost/benefit analysis of whether you should do A or B when each of them consists of a whole bunch of individual activities, all of which require their own analyses. The economist type answer is to levy Pigouvian taxes on each individual component (e.g., carbon taxes) and then let the market sort things out. I don't know if that would work any better, though, but I don't see people being able to do this kind of analysis for each individual purchasing decision either.