Ten tips to help our planet . . . revisited

Published September 1, 2000

On the final page of the calendar that Environmental Defense (formerly known as the Environmental Defense Fund) sends to millions of potential contributors, you’ll find a list of ten things you can do to protect the environment. Not surprisingly, one of those things is to support their organization. . . . and the other nine points are just as dubious. ED’s list is reproduced below along with a factual appraisal of each “tip.”

1. Recycle as much as possible, newspapers, glass, plastic, and batteries.

Recycling often makes sense, but mandatory recycling is usually a mistake. For one thing, we don’t need to recycle everything. We aren’t running out of room for our trash. (One expert, Clark Wiseman, calculated that all the trash produced by the United States for the next 1,000 years could fit in a landfill 44 miles square and 300 feet deep.) We aren’t running out of natural resources, either. Nearly all raw materials today are cheaper than they were in the past–a sign that they remain plentiful.

It makes sense to recycle some metals, such as aluminum and lead, because they are expensive to produce from ore, and recycling saves money. Cardboard is recycled because it can be collected cheaply in shopping malls and supermarkets. Recycling newspapers can make sense if local landfill space is expensive, but probably not otherwise.

Mandatory recycling is expensive and may use up as much or more resources as will be saved in the process of recycling. Frequently there isn’t much of a market for recycled material, so the material you diligently cleaned and sorted ends up in a landfill anyway.

2. Conserve energy, use energy-efficient lighting, and ask your utility company to use renewable energy.

Energy supplies in the U.S. and globally are abundant and growing more plentiful over time. (We have over a thousand-year supply of coal in the U.S., for example.) Conservation is often a good idea if it saves money, but don’t think you have to do it to “save the planet.”

To develop so-called “renewable” sources of energy, other resources must be used. For example, wind energy relies on the construction of large concrete towers. Making concrete is very energy-intensive. While setting, concrete gives off large amounts of carbon dioxide. (And windmills kill many birds.)

The production of solar panels is even more energy-intensive. Biomass, corn, and other supposedly “renewable” energy sources can be produced in large quantities only by using mechanical farming, fertilizers, and pesticides. In the future, these technologies may become more economical; if they do, power companies will adopt them. At the moment it would be perverse to encourage their use.

3. Find an alternative to chemical pesticides for your lawn and buy organic produce whenever possible to reduce pesticide use in farming.

Properly used, “chemical” pesticides pose no threat to human health and are less dangerous than such “natural” pesticides as arsenic, lead, and copper sulfate. While the water that runs off from lawns can carry pesticides into streams, careful use will minimize their impact on the environment.

Pesticides increase crop yields, enabling farmers to produce more. Without pesticides, crop yields in the United States would be 20 to 80 percent lower than they are now. Food would be more expensive, and millions of acres of woods would have to be farmed to raise the same amount of food we raise today.

Organically grown vegetables are no safer than vegetables grown using pesticides, and they may be more dangerous. After all, they rely on natural pesticides manufactured by the plants, not synthetic ones designed by humans who are trying to minimize the dangers to other humans.

4. Protect endangered species and habitat by not purchasing products such as ivory, furs, skins, and shells made from endangered wildlife.

Watch out! This recommendation may have the opposite effect of the one intended.

Purchasing products like ivory or fur is not what endangers elephants and whales; it is the fact that there are often no owners to protect the wild animals. In that case, buying such products encourages illegal poaching. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

In Botswana, South Africa, and other southern African countries, villagers receive benefits–food and cash–from elephant hunts. Because the villagers benefit, they are careful to make sure there are animals for next year. They become similar to owners, even though the elephants remain wild. The villagers are vigilant against poachers. If ivory could be readily sold overseas–increasing their rewards for protecting elephant herds–villagers would be even more protective of the elephants.

5. Organize a community group to clean up a local stream, highway, park, or beach.

This is a good idea! And while you are there, notice that the area that needs cleaning is more likely to be publicly owned than private. Private property is not incompatible with environmental protection: in fact, it is its best guarantor.

6. Use public transportation whenever possible and when driving, try to car pool.

Because so few people use them, buses and trains are actually less energy-efficient per passenger mile than cars and trucks. And new cars today release some 96 percent fewer emissions than a new car 25 years ago.

Car pooling and public transportation can make sense–and walking and bike-riding are good for you. But let’s be realistic. For most people, the automobile makes life pleasant and allows door-to-door transportation, which is especially important when you are transporting young children. Don’t be cajoled into giving up your car.

7. Visit and help support our parks. Help teach young people to appreciate the beauties of the natural world.

Parks are great places. Unfortunately, our national parks, the nation’s crown jewels, are not what they used to be. They are suffering from poor management.

National park managers get most of their funding from Congress, so they respond more to what politicians want than what visitors want. Realistic fees, with the revenues staying in the place where they are collected, should be the main financial support for our national parks.

8. Educate yourself on important environmental concerns and know how your elected officials stand on these issues.

If you are going to get involved in environmental issues, education is essential. But remember that environmental organizations are self-interested, too. To keep their membership high, they must keep people worried about the future. Thus, they tend to exaggerate problems because that’s the only way to keep members pouring in money.

Don’t rely on newsletters and fundraising letters from environmental groups to tell you what problems are real and need attention. Check out the materials produced by The Heartland Institute, PERC, Pacific Research Institute, Cato, and other organizations devoted to sound science, rational economics, and free market environmentalism.

9. Spend time teaching a child about the importance of a healthy environment.

Young children should have a chance to experience and enjoy the wonders of nature without being force-fed a diet of anti-business and anti-technology half-truths. Lecturing them about environmental protection when they are very young is more likely to worry them than to instill a love of the outdoors.

10. Become a member of Environmental Defense to learn about what YOU can do.

Environmental Defense raised $27.8 million in 1998 and spent $24 million. This is more than the spending of all of the groups devoted to sound science and market-based environmental protection. If ED can’t even get ten simple points about the environment right, do they deserve your financial support?

Julian Morris is a co-director of the Environment and Technology Programme at The Institute for Economic Analysis, based in London, and editor of the recently published book, Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle. Contributions to this essay were also made by Jane S. Shaw of PERC.