Feels So Right

I just read a Slate article discussing the author's self-described eco-wander through Germany. He starts the article by writing:

While zooming by a field of wind turbines, traveling on a train from Amsterdam to Bremen at 200 kilometers per hour, I suddenly realized that I was experiencing turbine envy....I'd heard the very train I was on was powered by a grid that includes wind power. My laptop plugged into the train's wall, I was starting to feel so darned eco that I could practically hear a puff of air each time I hit the space key.

That last sentence captures a fact of environmentalism about which I am decidedly ambivalent. On one hand, since I view self-interest as perhaps the most powerful human motivator, feeling good about doing something green on an individual level is probably a good thing. On the other hand, a warm and fuzzy feeling is not sound basis for public policy, environmental or otherwise. Good examples are contained in the article itself:

Beyond wind, Germany abounds with eco-superlatives. The country produces more solar technology than any other...

And so it does. But this is because the German government guarantees a high feed-in price for any electricity generated by renewable energy. In the case of solar energy, this has had the effect--though of course not the intent-- of diverting solar panels from being built in places of the world that are actually sunny and driving up the cost of silicon, a key input in solar panel production, by 1500% in 5 years.

The policy also encourages rent seeking. On a tour of a solar panel plant in Germany, I listened to a city official tell my boss how he didn't use any of the electricity he generated from the solar panel on his roof. Instead, he sold the solar electricity back into the grid for the guaranteed high price and then bought the cheaper conventional electricity for his personal use, netting him some pocket money each month.

Another example:

I ate bockwurst for lunch (Germany produces 1,500 types of sausage), and the menu noted that the meat was chemical-free and the vegetables organic. More than five times as much agricultural land is dedicated to organic agriculture in the European Union (13.5 million acres) as in the United States (2.3 million acres)...From its wind farms to "small is beautiful" to abundant organics, Germany was beginning to look like the eco-miracle I'd hoped for.

I don't begrudge anyone their desire to grow or eat organic products, but there is nothing virtuous about it, and indeed, any governmental policy that encourages such an inefficient practice is, in my view, unethical. I refer to Paul Collier, a respected development economist:

The world price of staple foods has rocketed, almost doubling in the past 18 months. For consumers in the rich world this massive increase in the price of wheat or rice is an inconvenience; for consumers in the poorest countries it is a catastrophe.

Food accounts for around half of the entire budget of most Africans....

The remedy to high food prices is to increase supply. The most realistic way is to replicate the Brazilian model of large, technologically sophisticated agro-companies that supply the world market...

Unfortunately, large-scale commercial agriculture is deeply, perhaps irredeemably, unromantic... We laud the production style of the peasant: environmentally sustainable and human in scale...

Our longstanding agricultural romanticism has been compounded by our newfound environmental romanticism. In the United States fear of climate change has been manipulated by shrewd interests to produce grotesquely inefficient subsidies to biofuel...[and] just as livestock are eating the food that would have been consumed by poor Africans, so Americans are running their SUVs on it. One SUV tank of biofuel uses enough grain to feed an African family for a year.

In Europe deep-seated fears of science have been manipulated into a ban on both the production and import of genetically modified crops. This has obviously retarded productivity growth in European agriculture. Again the best that can be said of it is that we are rich enough to afford such folly. But as an unintended side-effect it has terrified African governments into banning GM lest their farmers be shut out of European markets. Africa definitely cannot afford this self-denial. It needs all the help it can possibly get from GM drought-resistant crops.

And sometimes, one might discover that what is perceived as mundane or even dangerous can be more wondrous than it would first appear. So saith William Tucker:

A 1,000-megawatt coal plant is fed by a 110-car coal train arriving every day. A nuclear reactor is replenished by a single tractor-trailer bringing new fuel rods once every 18 months...

By comparison, the “wastes” of nuclear power can once again be contained in a single truck. I recently watched one of these spent fuel assemblies being lifted into the receiving room at France’s nuclear reprocessing center in La Hague. It is an eerie sight — the most radioactive object in the solar system emitting double what you would have received standing at ground zero in Hiroshima. Yet a three-foot wall separated us, and the emissions didn’t even register on our badges. More than 95 percent of the spent fuel rod can be recycled. That is why France is able to store all its “waste” (from 30 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity) beneath the floor of a single room.

It all seems too good to be true. People conjure up all kinds of nightmare scenarios just to compensate. Yet the reality remains: nuclear energy is the most environmentally benign discovery ever made.

Maybe, just maybe, a warm and fuzzy feeling can coincide with good policy--nevertheless, prudence dictates that despite his claims about non-registering badges, we should attribute the sensation to radiation poisoning.