The Common Follies of Banning Bottled Water, Food Miles, and Earth Hour

Agriculture, David Seymour, Environment, Regulation, Role of Government

Three movements which have made the news lately – the stop-selling-bottled-water movement, the switch-the-lights-off-for-an-hour movement, and the choose-locally-produced-food movement – reveal several misguided trends in modern environmentalism.

The trends stem from the fact that each of these movements is guilty of asking the wrong questions in their quest for environmental sustainability, thereby distracting attention from far more effective initiatives.

It is beyond controversy that human beings, as the only species with the ability to change the environment more than it changes us, can undermine the complex systems that sustain life on earth. However, our response to the danger that each of us represents to life on earth requires a more thoughtful approach than has been exemplified by proponents of the three movements.

First, let’s dissect the reasoning behind the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) decree that municipalities stop selling bottled water. The decree seems to stem from FCM asking the question: “Is bottled water the most efficient way of drinking water?” There is no doubt that selling half a pint of water for $2 is both the marketing coup of the century and an inefficient use of resources compared to drinking tap water. Encouraging people to drink tap water is clearly the right answer to the question they asked.

Unfortunately, and no matter that $2 seems like a rip-off, drinking bottled water probably has a smaller ecological impact than if we spent the same money on other uses. A better question for FCM to have asked was: “If people are going to spend $2, would the ecological impact be more or less if that spending shifts to other products such as other kinds of drinks, perhaps more food, or perhaps a couple of litres of gasoline?” Restricting bottled water will, at best, simply shift consumption rather than reduce it. At worst, people will end up using the money they save by drinking tap water to instead consume more resource-intensive goods.

Now let’s look at the locally-produced food movement. When its proponents ask, “How do we reduce the ecological impact of transporting food?” they are assuming that transportation is the biggest variable in the ecological footprint of food production. But after Guardian columnist George Monbiot declared that it is “unthinkable” to consume food transported to Europe from New Zealand on the basis of the ecological footprint such a distance entailed, researchers at New Zealand’s Lincoln University proved the opposite was in fact true. The researchers found that, because agriculture in New Zealand is actually more efficient and specialized than Europe’s, the total ecological impact (production plus transport) of Europeans eating some of New Zealand’s agricultural products is less than buying locally.

Finally, there is the campaign to switch lights off for one hour later this month – advocated by the World Wildlife Fund – as a way to take action against climate change.

There are 8,766 hours in a year and switching lights off for one of them is tokenism writ large. When you consider that several billion people in the world don’t even have electric lights to switch off, Earth Hour seems to be both merely symbolic and a little bit indulgent. Much like choosing locally-grown food, Earth Hour is more of a cultural event than a substantive approach to reducing our ecological impact.

Contrary to the conceits these three romantic and collective actions entail, the real advances in harmonizing the relationship between our species and our planet are often (and disappointingly perhaps?) piecemeal and incremental.

They are also often commercially-driven. For example:

• containerized and refrigerated shipping are commercial innovations that have allowed us to literally bridge the gap between the most efficient places to grow food and people’s preferred places to consume it,

• better farming techniques mean that we can feed more people without needing to clear more land, and

• a look at the General Electric website shows how smart grid technology will streamline electricity distribution by balancing demand –so long as millions of people don’t insist on switching their lights in unison to make “statements.”

Unlike the environmental-flavour-of-the-month movements, these innovations are highly effective but completely unromantic. The real call to action should be for smarter, evidenced-based, incremental green policy instead of hijacking a good cause for cultural fads.