It’s Not Easy Being Green

Why is it that even when we know the right thing to do, we don’t do it?

A couple of years ago, while contemplating the dandelions running riot alongside the road in front of my house, I decided it was time to get a weed whacker. I went down to my local Canadian Tire to see what was available. Being an environmentally sensitive guy, I picked out a nice 18-volt battery-powered one.

I returned home, plugged it in overnight and set out the next morning to wreak havoc on the obstreperous dandelions. The results, however, fell somewhat short of expectations. My childhood memory of weed whackers was that they were slightly alarming contraptions, always on the verge of running out of control, posing a danger not just to plants but to bystanders and exposed shins as well.

My new trimmer, however, did not exactly whack the weeds. Really, it just knocked them around a bit. Half of them got bent over, rather than being severed at the base. I often had to come at them from several different angles in order to get them clipped. This took a long time, so that after 20 minutes when the batteries ran out, the job was only half done.

Oh well, I thought, I will finish up tomorrow.

The fate of my weed whacker was sealed a couple weeks later when my wife decided that I was not doing a good enough job and that she would have to take on the dandelions herself. She saddled up with the usual safety gear, grabbed the trimmer and headed off for the road. Five minutes later she came back, threw my poor battery-powered trimmer on the ground and said—her exact words—“This is bullshit.”

She then hopped in the car and drove away. Half an hour later she reappeared, back from Canadian Tire, this time with an old-fashioned gas-powered weed whacker. “Can you get this going for me?” she asked sweetly.

Naturally it had a two-stroke engine. So I got out the gas can from the garage, sat down with a funnel and measuring cup, and poured in the right amount of oil. (NB: Any time you find yourself mixing oil into gasoline with the intention of burning it, just admit that you are a bad person. Save everyone else the trouble.)

The new weed whacker, I had to admit, was a small miracle of miniaturization. It had a tiny little engine, with a gas tank that held no more than a cup of fuel. Pull the cord, though, and the thing took off like a bat out of hell. And did it ever whack weeds! It annihilated them, eviscerated them, terminated them with extreme prejudice. It splattered their vegetative fluids across the road, leaving nothing but exposed roots and chlorophyll stains.

This was the weed whacker of my childhood memories.

The difference, however, was that when I was a child, no one knew much about the environmental consequences of weed whackers, or two-stroke engines, or fossil fuels more generally. Now we do. And yet this knowledge does not automatically give us an incentive to stop using them. The fact remains that, kilo for kilo, nothing delivers power like a good old-fashioned gasoline engine. It is only when you explore the alternatives that you realize what an incredible concentration of energy there is in fossil fuel.

Thus we find ourselves in something of a dilemma. On the one hand, we know that it is bad for the environment to be burning fossil fuel. On the other hand, we have all sorts of things that we would like to get done. We still derive benefits, as individuals, from the use of fossil fuels. The costs, on the other hand, are primarily borne by others. Not only does my weed whacker make only a tiny contribution to the overall problem of global warming, but even the effects that it does create are felt very far away, by persons unknown to me.

These costs, in other words, take the form of what economists call “negative externalities,” effects on third parties whom I need not compensate for their losses, and so whose interests I am not forced to factor into my calculations. The result is what some environmentalists have called “the mother of all collective action problems”—each of us contributes, in our own way, to the problem of climate change, yet none of us has an incentive to stop what we are doing, and each one of us can plausibly point to someone else’s behaviour as the cause of the problem.

Global warming is therefore a textbook example of a tragedy of the commons. This makes it, first and foremost, a motivational problem, not an ideological one. In other words, it needs to be fixed, not by changing people’s minds, but by changing their incentives. And yet people still find this devilishly hard to grasp. There is an almost irresistible tendency to think that the reason we have not yet fixed the problem of global warming is that we are not thinking about it in the right way.

The two books under review both illustrate this tendency, in rather different ways.

David Suzuki’s most recent, The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future, is billed as an attempt by “one of the planet’s preeminent elders” to “sum up in one last lecture all that he has learned over his lifetime.” Suzuki is, of course, one of the most influential public intellectuals in this country. Like most Canadians of my generation, I grew up watching The Nature of Things, and so tend to think of Suzuki as a constant in the universe.

Suzuki was also an environmentalist long before it was cool to be an environmentalist. Perhaps because of this passionate commitment to the cause, it is startling to discover that Suzuki is oblivious to the logic of collective action. What’s worse, he does not even know what an externality is, and seems unwilling to learn. In The Legacy, he repeats the same incorrect definition that he has been using for years (he equates externalities with anything that is not part of, and hence external to, an economic model, and then claims, on that basis, that economists ignore them). Elsewhere, he even provides a detailed account of where the misunderstanding arose. It was apparently based upon something that the instructor said to him, on the first day of an economics class, which he evidently misinterpreted and never bothered to double check.1

It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect upon this. It means that Suzuki does not know the first thing about environmental economics. It means that in 38 years as a university professor, public intellectual and environmental activist, he did not once take the time to find out what social scientists have to say about the problem of global warming. It means that he has never even glanced at the Wikipedia page on environmental economics.

Because of this, Suzuki winds up committing the core fallacy of environmental activism. He thinks that if people only understood the consequences that their actions were having on the environment, they would each be motivated to change their behaviour. And so, to the extent that we are not changing our behaviour, it must be because we do not understand, or that we have not been telling ourselves the right “story.” Yet this is manifestly not the case. My wife understands the science of global warming perfectly well. But she also does not like dandelions growing by the side of the road. And when push comes to shove, the desire to kill dandelions wins over environmental peccadilloes. It is not particularly mysterious. It is called free riding; people do it all the time.

Thus when Suzuki writes “we say we are intelligent, but what intelligent creature, knowing that water is a sacred, life-giving element, would use water as a toxic dump?” he seems genuinely not to know. The answer is easy: we are intelligent creatures who care just slightly more about ourselves than we do about other people. For example, like most residents of Toronto I do not use the water on my land as a toxic dump; I use Lake Ontario for that purpose. Saying that “we are water, and whatever we do to water, we do to ourselves” sounds very nice, but all the “we” talk actually encourages a very serious confusion. What I do to water, I primarily do to other people, not to myself, which is why I care about it just ever-so-slightly less.

In the end, and somewhat contrary to all expectations, Suzuki winds up coming off as a science chauvinist. There are basically two bodies of knowledge that he respects. There is physical science—genetics, biology, the stuff that he studies—and there is what he calls “traditional knowledge”—by which he means the wisdom of aboriginal and indigenous peoples. Conspicuously absent is any interest in what social scientists might have to say about how human beings work, about the political process, about the economy and about how societies mobilize to address collective action problems. As a result, he knows a lot more about the nature of things than he does about the nature of people.

The primary action in William Marsden’s new book, Fools Rule: Inside the Failed Politics of Climate Change, takes place in the yawning chasm that exists between believing that global warming is a problem and getting seven billion people organized to do something about it. Marsden is a senior investigative journalist (at the Montreal Gazette), and the pedigree shows. On the one hand, the book is really a collection of expanded “pieces.” All are engaging and well written, but not all are related to his core theme, which is the failure of international cooperation in combating climate change. (More than 100 pages are spent recounting the details of his various trips to the Canadian Arctic, mainly to talk to scientists. It is some of the most interesting material in the book, but it would be hard to describe it as “on topic.”)

The investigative journalist shows up in another way, in his somewhat hardbitten view of humanity. Marsden clearly believes that people are knaves. He is a “glass-half-empty” kind of guy. Indeed, it is sometimes hard to know what the rest of us could possibly do to please him. For example, he criticizes the five major northern countries, including Canada, for their unseemly rush to assert sovereignty over the melting Arctic, including their “saber rattling.” Yet he goes on just a few pages later to make fun of Canada’s puny military resources, and to criticize our “paper sovereignty” in the North. So which is it?

Marsden, then, seems like the kind of guy who would understand free-rider problems. Indeed, when it comes to his analysis of the political manoeuvring (charlatanism, cynicism, etc.) that led to the failure of the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, he is in perfect stride. He starts out sounding as if he is going to present it as a North-South morality play, with the North as villain. “One of the sad realities in the struggle to meet the challenges of climate change is that the countries that pollute the most—the rich countries—hold all the cards,” he writes. From this point of view, the desire to expand beyond Kyoto, in order to get China and India to accept emission controls, seems like a cynical plot. “Just as emerging nations see their chance for a better life, the West turns the tables and demands emission cutbacks that could stall their growth.”

But this theme quickly falls apart, first, because of the simple fact that China is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, with India rapidly advancing, and second, because both countries have been extremely bloody-minded in the pursuit of their national interests, at the expense of the common good. (Marsden quotes the Indian environment minister declaring the meeting a “success”: “I went to Copenhagen not to save the world. I went to Copenhagen to protect India’s national interests. And my mandate was to protect India’s right to foster economic growth.”)

A couple of pages on, Marsden admits what is becoming increasingly obvious: “there are no good guys in this story.” Indeed, by the end of the book, he is talking even tougher on India and China than he is on the West. Pleading poverty is just an excuse, he claims. “When you consider that the poverty in countries such as China and India is largely of their own making, it is difficult to understand why they would get a free ride. Their poverty is intimately linked to overpopulation and poor governance, for which these countries alone are responsible.” This is uncharitable, to put it mildly. Indeed, there are times when Marsden’s negativity shades over into the misanthropic.

Nevertheless, what emerges from the discussion is a clear portrait of the current state of play at the international level—one that is flattering to none of the participants. The United States is crippled by internal governance problems so severe that no one in the world believes the U.S. capable of implementing an international climate control agreement, even if the president were to sign one. China and India maintain that excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was put there by the developed countries, and so it is the responsibility of those countries alone to do something about it. Only the Europeans seem vaguely serious about the problem, but because most of them actually tried to live up to their Kyoto commitments, they are increasingly peripheral to the discussion.

As far as Canada is concerned, it has become clear that so long as we have a federal government whose primary base of power is in the Alberta oil patch, our central objective will be to sow discord, create enmity, introduce unfriendly amendments, dilute the wording of agreements and otherwise do dirty work for the Americans. We are the new Saudi Arabia.

What is surprising about Marsden’s analysis, however, is that even though he recognizes a free rider when he sees one and knows what an externality is, he still misunderstands the logic of collective action. In his presentation of the tragedy of the commons, he confuses two distinct issues: first, our tendency to put our short-term interests ahead of our long-term interests and, second, our tendency to put our own interests above those of other people. It is the second tendency that generates the tragedy, not the first.

But because he mixes these two things up, Marsden ends the book speculating about what the “trouble with our brains” might be, such that we are unable to solve the problem of global warming. This is strange—since it is incredibly easy to identify what the trouble with our institutions is, such that we are unable to solve the problem. Why does there have to be a problem with our brains as well?

What becomes apparent is that Marsden is committing the same fallacy as Suzuki—assuming that if people only understood better what is happening, they would be motivated to do something. Thus he starts talking as though the major problem in the world is that people do not believe climate change is real. In this respect, his cynicism fails him just when he needs it most. He quotes a series of American politicians, claiming that there is no evidence of global warming, but then proceeds to take this at face value. He goes on to wonder whether “breakthroughs in brain imagery and brain wave analysis” might shed some light on why people resist certain ideas. But we do not need brain scans to tell us that people often believe what is in their interest to believe, or that politicians sometimes lie.

Most people know full well that climate change is happening. They just are not motivated to do anything about it. They do not want to give up their SUVs, air conditioners and weed whackers. In this respect, saying “I don’t believe in climate change” is just a socially acceptable way of saying “I don’t care about other people.” It should not be taken too seriously—and certainly should not be regarded as the root of the current global impasse.

In the end, Marsden winds up recommending that “negotiations” between national leaders be replaced by “planning meetings” among experts, who would somehow be empowered to “set emission reduction goals according to the science.” How these experts are supposed to dictate policy, right over the head of national governments, is not explained.

I can understand how, when one has been where Marsden has been and talked to the people he has talked to, one could despair of the political process. But thinking that one can bypass it is surely an illusion. We human beings are not particularly good at collective action, and there is no reason to think that we are even capable of demonstrating solidarity on the scale required to respond to the problem of global warming. Yet to the extent that we are capable of solving collective-action problems, the way that we do it is via the nation-state, and through political leadership. It may be an ugly, infuriating process, but there is no alternative to it.


  1. Geoff Olson, “Whirlpools and Turbulent Flows,” Adbusters, July 15, 2009.