It's easy to win an argument when you offer a set of false choices, but it still doesn't make you right. The article isn't available online yet, but the June issue of Wired has a very in-your-face article titled "The war on greenhouse gases is too important to be left to the environmentalists. There we said it" as though the blustery statement is some act of courage that no one has been willing to say before. Oh, how courageous.
And they make some decent points--it is better, from a carbon standpoint, to live in a city than it is to live in an exurb and commute, by car, from a hundred miles away. No mention, however, that the carbon usage could be mollified by increasing public transportation options, like trains, to make commutes less polluting. I can't believe that people actually like sitting in their cars for an hour and a half, one way, everyday, dealing with traffic and asshole drivers and hoping that there's not an accident that will add another layer of hell onto an already painful ritual.
But there are two points that really underscored the dishonesty of their argument, I believe. The first is about organics, written by Joanna Pearlstein. The first part of her argument actually makes a solid case for vegetarianism--cows put out a lot of methane, so the more beef and dairy we eat, the more cow gas gets into the air. And she basically says that because non-hormoned and grass fed cows take longer to mature and produce less milk, that organic is making them live longer and expel more gases over their lifetimes. But take away the hormones, and both beef and milk become more expensive, and fewer people consume them at high levels. Seriously, do you want to know what has to happen to a cow so you can get a 99 cent hamburger? Probably not-we'd be better off as a society if beef cost more, but we didn't eat so much of it.
But the false choices really come through at the end of her piece:
Organic isn't just Farmer John; it's Big Ag. Plenty of pesticide-free foods are produced by industrial-scale fars and then shipped thousands of miles to their final destination. The result: refrigerator trucks belching carbon dioxide.For most people, however, that's not an option, because if organic is Big-Ag (and it is, no question), then conventional is Really Big-Ag. All things being equal, Pearlstein has a point, although she leaves out the dead zones being formed by fertilizer runoff and the ecological effects of massive pesticide use; all things being equal, local is better than organic, with local organic being best of all. But not all things are equal, and so if you're getting your lettuce from two time zones away no matter what, then go organic, because it is better than conventional.
Organic produce can be good for the climate, but not if it's grown in energy-dependent hothouses and travels long distances to get to your fridge. What matters is eating food that's locally grown and in season. So skip the prewashed bag of organic greens trucked from two time zones away--the real virtue may come from that conventionally farmed head of lettuce grown in the next county.
The other is the "used cars, not hybrids" piece. It begins by noting that, thanks to the nickel in the Prius's batteries, its carbon footprint during construction is larger than that of a Hummer. The Prius makes up for it almost immediately by using a lot less fuel than the Hummer, but the Wired people suggest that this means it's probably a better idea to hold onto a used car than to upgrade to a hybrid:
A used car, on the other hand, starts with a significant advatnage: The first owner has already paid off its carbon debt. Buy a decade-old Toyota Tercel, which gets a respectable 35 mpg, and the Prius will have to drive 100,000 miles to catch up.Well, the Prius would close the gap once the 1994 Geo fell apart underneath you and you wound up buying the Prius anyway a year later. You might be able to get that 100K out of the Tercel, though--those are tough cars. Of course, that would require that everyone in the market for a vehicle not shop for a new car. Since that's not going to happen, howsabout we try to make the new cars that are going to come out a whole hell of a lot more efficient than those currently on the road. (I gather you noticed that the Wired author had to go back to the 90s for his examples.)
Better yet, buy a three-cylinder, 49-horsepower 1994 Geo Metro XFi, one of the most fuel efficient cars ever built. It gets the same average mileage as a 2008 Prius, so a new hybrid would never close the carbon gap.
A better idea would be, again, to invest in people-moving infrastructure so that the individual vehicle is less a necessity. Plan cities to make them more pedestrian friendly, offer public transportation options and make it less convenient to drive a car, and then make the next generation of cars as eco-friendly as possible so you can retire the beasts and reap the gains.
What it really comes down to is this--individual contributions are fine, but they won't solve the climate crisis. We need big changes implemented from on high that will change the ways we live. And offering people a series of false options isn't the way to start that very necessary conversation.