Trickle-Down Altruism

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.

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]
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:
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).

-- CAV


: Minor edits.


Vigilis said...

Gus, unfortunately, your observations and conclusions are accurate.

The shameful pretense's of environmentalism were driven home to me by Thomas L. Friedman in his shameful, Nov. 17, 2009, defense of cap-and-trade legislation:

Friedman equated the toll of a devestating plague with the impact of Cap and Trade --- lower human demand for energy and water.

Friedman and likeminded leaders fear ordinary Americans live too well, and as the hordes in developing nations aspire to our middle-class lifestyles, cumulative demand will deplete energy and water resources. Their solution? Saddle Americans with passed-along carbon taxes to lower current consumption and alter lifestyles, of course. No effect on leaders (e.g. Al Gore) of course, except with the masses driven out of the local resource equation Gore's supply would be more assured.

mtnrunner2 said...

Good title :)

To prevent my head from exploding, I left a long comment at

Aside from rejecting self-sacrifice, my take-away from this whole issue is that reducing water usage still does nothing to help water delivery. It still does not automatically come out of our faucets, and someone still has to find a way to get it to us.

I'm all in favor of *not being wasteful* with what is rightfully mine, but conservation per se is simply sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice.

Roger said...

Water, or the lack of it, in some form, will be the next environmental panic once "Climate Change" has run its course. I heard that years ago, and it was confirmed for me this past summer. While in Europe, I caught a promo for a documentary to air on the BBC. It's title was "Are We Running Out Of Water?" You can bet that the doomsayers aren't too far away.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thomas Friedman also has the gall to call himself a "clean-energy hawk," which makes about as much sense as calling oneself an "artificial Arab oil-embargo hawk" or an "unnecessary body cast pugilist."

Environmentalists have, in the past, admitted that there would be nothing like a good plague or natural disaster to curtail human energy consumption, and even that they regard humans as the "real" plague.


Your point on waste reminds me of a time about a decade ago that I heard about Yaron Brook surprising some reporter interviewing him about environmentalism by admitting that he did things to avoid wasting energy. Brook recalibrated him by saying, "I don't like to waste money."


Agreed, and that will be the case whether they succeed in ruining our economy in the process or not.


Michael said...

you know I've been thinking about this for quite some time. As someone who will go on and study environmental science next year, I think it would be a good idea to release multimedia that counters all the negative and hysterical videos we see from those eco whack jobs. I also think the sound bites they use e.g. help the environment, save the planet etc... should be either put in the context of human production or just completely revamped e.g. exploit the planet or die, conservation is sacrifice, for a sustainable future we must produce more, human progress means a healthy planet etc.....

I'm thinking of several formats: Illustrations, flash presentations and youtube videos. And to top it all off put these up on a website with the name GreenCorp

Gus Van Horn said...

That's a good start, but an underappreciated part of the kind of debunkery that is required is to freely admit it when some scientific claim made by the greens is actually correct (or could be correct), but is being misused to foist that political agenda on us. (The first link in the post will take you to one of the posts where I partially explain why.) Part of what conservatives consistently screw up in this debate is that they allow themselves to be dragged in to a scientific debate when it is the political principles of capitalism that are being cast aside as irrelevant.

It is important to establish that we will accept whatever conclusion is supported by science -- but also show that we know that such conclusions would not/do not invalidate political principles.

Whatever the trend (if any) of the earth's temperature, it's good to know, but whatever the trend, capitalism is the proper political system for man.

Michael said...

so perhaps videos that link to the positivity of production and human progress. Greenovation for a Greener planet. Or basically something that exalts capitalism.

is what what you're trying to say

Gus Van Horn said...

Or both. Or the one leading to the other. There's quite a bit you could do with this.

Your idea of making a positive argument FOR capitalism is golden: Too many times, people allow environmentalists to cower them into a defensive position.

madmax said...


But doesn't the environmentalist hatred of capitalism follow from their view of man-caused AGW? I ask because your position, with which I agree, that the actual climate science and the political solutions are two different things seems to me to be a tough argument to make.

The Green movement argument is that modern industrialization has caused a crisis situation and that the warming of the planet will cause the melting of the ice caps and that there will be devastating consequences for the world's population. In essence, rational man if left free will destroy himself by means of his technology and his greed. Therefore, capitalism must be restrained.

It seems that the scientific question is at the heart of the matter. Because if it were true that human technology were about to create major climate disturbances, then it would follow that political intervention was necessary. Or am I wrong on that?

I have always had trouble with the environmentalist movement based on one question. What if they are right about the science?

Gus Van Horn said...

"The Green movement argument is that modern industrialization has caused a crisis situation and that the warming of the planet will cause the melting of the ice caps and that there will be devastating consequences for the world's population. In essence, rational man if left free will destroy himself by means of his technology and his greed. Therefore, capitalism must be restrained."

This is definitely the argument they want people to accept, and many of the environmentalists (but probably not all) may indeed believe it themselves, but (1) even the worst-case scientific estimates of AGW effects are slow enough for people to react to in a non-emergency fashion, and (2) I doubt you could firmly establish who was responsible for it (assuming it's happening for the sake of argument) to handle it via torts.

In any event, no scientific conclusion can invalidate the fact man has rights and the proper purpose of a government is to protect them. Without exception, the solutions promoted by environmentalists to the problems supposedly caused by AGW violate the proper purpose of government, and most would be worse than allowing the "worst-case scenario" to happen.

So suppose the science were right (and worst-case). If there is not a political solution that protects individual rights, there isn't a political solution. That said, don't forget that protecting property rights so, say, land purchases made farther from the coast are honored by the law, are, at the end of the day, just one example of a political solution.

Altruism isn't the entirety of ethics any more than statism is the entirety of politics. Making sure individuals can promote their own welfare IS a political solution.

Andrew Dalton said...

In any event, no scientific conclusion can invalidate the fact man has rights and the proper purpose of a government is to protect them.

Exactly. Or as I've said before, man's nature hasn't changed -- and none of the environmentalists' specific empirical claims about the climate, even if true, will suddenly make statism right or practical.

I also think that madmax gives too much credit to the Greens for having political views that somehow follow from scientific premises. Environmentalism has always been a moral crusade against the ability, need, and right of man to alter the natural environment to his own ends.

In this respect, it reminds me of vegetarianism, which is an idea that our intellectuals seem to keep wanting to be true. "Premise A, therefore vegetarianism. Oops, premise A is wrong? Then premise B, therefore vegetarianism. Oh, premise B is wrong? Then ..." You can see the pattern here.

Gus Van Horn said...


Yes. Thanks for elaborating on that point.

The kind of argument that environmentalists make is a kind of bait-and-switch, whereby they present some semiplausible argument (often, quasi-scientific) as bait, and then, based on acceptance of its truth, foist a complete non-sequitur on anyone they catch off-guard.


mo said...

so for example, producing preservatives that are biodegradable is good for the environment. How would you tie this to the individual's well-being ?

Anonymous said...


I've always thought that the abrupt turn-around from Global Ice Age to AGW that occurred in the 1970's was due to the fact that, originally, the perpetrators of the myth were going to tout the superiority of central planning to protect mankind from the impending apocalypse.

When it became evident that that dog wouldn't hunt, they inverted their quest. If we can't have central planning as saviour then we can, at the very least, pillory capitalism as the devil. So we still need that Communist Messiah to protect Mankind from the Apocalypse. [1]

So, either way, we're getting Collectivism. And Righteously So!

[1] Except the unredeemed, of course. Those we cast into outer darkness. After appropriately Expropriating them, of course. I'm curious. Did the Inquisition seize their victims' property before or after they burned them?

Gus Van Horn said...


I take your comment to be directed at Michael, but if I understand what he means, I would venture that he would tie something like that in ONLY if it really were good for an individual's own welfare. Otherwise, scuttle the idea. (e.g., I turn lights off when I leave the house to save money, and not because I am "green."


Love the rhetorical question -- as well as the global cooling/warming refutation of the idea that the science in any way conceivably leads to the suggested political controls, even in the minds of the greens. Very economical, that.


Mo said...


do you think then that we should re-define the words "environment" and "sustainability"? Or use a colour opposite to Green perhaps.

Gus Van Horn said...

I think that we should say what we mean and mean what we say, rather than focusing too much on what tthe environmentalists are doing. It's fine to oppose what they stand for and to propose rational alternatives. But to adopt a superfluous artificial vocabulary or extraneous symbolism strikes me as indulging a little bit in two errors. (1) THEY distort language and resort to symbolism because they're actually attempting to OBFUSCATE and PREEMPT rational thought. We don't need those kinds of tricks. (2) We should concentrate on substance first, then worry about form -- which will be dictated by the substance, rather than whatever the Greens are doing, anyway.