Thursday, October 07, 2010
Some time ago, in a reply to a comment, I recounted the first time my childhood interest in science caused me to become skeptical of the kinds of doomsday claims that are the stock-in-trade of environmentalists.
My epiphany was learning about the water cycle after a year or so of turning the faucet off and on when I brushed my teeth in order to "conserve water."It never occurred to me wonder what an environmentalist would say were this inconvenient physical phenomenon brought up as an objection to the left's fatwa against green lawns, hot showers, and clean laundry.
Nevertheless, this morning over at Slate, I got to see exactly that. A reader asks the "Green Lantern" the following question: "[H]ow is it possible to waste water when it's constantly being recycled through evaporation and rain?"
Water shortages are really a problem of distribution. We may have enough freshwater on Earth to meet the global population's current needs, but we can't always make it available where it's needed, when it's needed, and in the quality in which it's needed.So far, so good. Of course, part of the reason it never occurred to me to ask the above question is that when it was most on my mind, the eco-propaganda of the day ignored the finer points of the actual problem. One commercial stands out in my mind for its dishonest image of an Earth-as-round-sponge being thoroughly squeezed by a pair of pasty white hands for the few drops of water it contained.
Since then, environmentalists have had to become somewhat more sophisticated. Today, instead of glossing over the fact that we can easily make up for local shortfalls in the availability of water, they (grudgingly and incompletely) acknowledge that such shortfalls can be addressed. However, they still make it seem harder than it is, imply that it's a waste of other of the "Earth's" resources, and call it "sinful" to boot:
Let's say your city takes water from a nearby river and then returns its treated wastewater to the same source. (This is usually how it works in cities that withdraw from surface waters.) In that case, the water that goes down your sinks, toilets, and tubs stays in the local system; it quickly gets recycled, becoming available for reuse in the same community.Left unmentioned, in part because the era of public utilities has caused many people to forget that such a thing even exists, and in part because it would quickly solve the many real problems of water supply we face today is the Law of Supply and Demand. As Thomas Sowell once noted regarding a water shortage in the American West:
On the other hand, water sprayed on a lawn will ultimately evaporate or transpire -- it's essentially lost to the community, making it what's known as a consumptive use. (That category also includes most water consumed by humans, animals, and plants, or incorporated into products.) That water may return from the atmosphere as rain, but if you live in an area that doesn't get a lot of precipitation, then you can't exactly count on receiving a timely, balance-restoring [local] deposit. ...
If you live in a city that pumps most of its water out of the ground, however, the distinction between consumptive and nonconsumptive uses may be moot. Though some utilities make an effort to pump treated wastewater back into the source aquifer, most discharge it into a stream or river that eventually flows out to the ocean -- meaning water that spirals down your drain doesn't get returned to the city's account. So in those areas, epic showers are just as sinful as profligate lawn spraying.
Energy costs further distort the image of water as a renewable resource. For every gallon of tap water you use, your utility company has to extract it, clean it, pump it to your house, pump it back out, reclean it, and eventually discharge it. [links dropped]
Like everything that is made artificially cheap, water is used lavishly, including the growing of crops like cotton that require huge amounts of water. It is one thing to grow cotton in Southern states with abundant rainfall. It is something else to grow it out in a California desert with water supplied largely at the taxpayers' expense.So what if some guy in Phoenix wants a green yard? If he can pay for it, he should have it: In a free market with full protection of property rights, if he can buy that kind of water, all this nattering about exactly how much water is in any given locale at any given time will have already been rendered moot.
But to solve a real problem, one must first identify a real problem, and to do that, one must correctly identify for whom something might be a problem. That is, one's practical questions always end up being dictated by normative criteria (and thus, a standard of value), and this explains both why we didn't adopt free market solutions to the problem of water supply long ago and why "advances" in environmentalist thought resemble those in creationism in that they light from one "gap" in common knowledge to another.
Environmentalists see water shortages as a problem of keeping humans from using water, rather than as how to help men get what they need. Thus, environmentalists are looking for convenient excuses, while capitalists are fighting for their lives.
As long as someone's "needing" water trumps someone else's ability to earn it as a criterion for public policy, we will have artificially cheap water, as well as the waste and shortages that go with it. And as long the basis for most people's thinking about ethics involves a prohibition against egoism, it will be to whom (or to what) we give away all this life-giving water that will also drive public policy.
As to the excuses: There is just enough selfishness -- thank goodness -- left in the American people that environmentalists have to pretend to justify their quasi-religious strictures with a veneer of rational- and scientific-sounding reasoning. But for all the conservatives -- Sowell emphatically included -- who think that all that must be done is to strip away this veneer to discredit this ilk once and for all, I have a question: Why, after five decades of debunkery, is environmentalism stronger than ever as a cultural force?
Hint: Don't dismiss the concept of "sin" so easily -- either as motivation or as impossible to ground rationally (and thereby correct once and for all).
Today: Minor edits.