Following Al Gore’s Example for Energy Use

My latest for TCS Daily, “Following Al Gore’s Example for Energy Use,” is now up. It’s my reaction to the Al Gore’s Big Giant House meme that swept the blogosphere overnight.

An excerpt:

Regardless of what Al Gore preaches about these matters, the way he lives strikes me as reasonable. He was of the manor born, to be sure, but he has earned a lot of money on his own. He has every right to a ginormous house, a fleet of cars, and to be flown around the world in private planes to speak out against the dangers of global warming. While it’s funny in microcosm, it strikes me as a perfectly defensible trade-off to use a thousand times more energy than the average guy in an effort to influence macro-level energy and environmental policy.

Where Gore and I differ is that my aim is for more people to get to live like Gore. While environmental degradation in general and global warming in particular are real problems, certainly a serious case can be made that they pale in comparison with the ravages of poverty. Further, if millions of people not starving to death isn’t its own reward, UC-Berkeley professor emeritus of energy and resources Jack Hollander explains in The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment’s Number One Enemy, that, contrary to conventional wisdom, as societies become more affluent, they produce less pollution. That’s not particularly surprising, when you think about it, as those whose basic human needs are met have both the inclination and resources to worry about cleaning up their environment.

Much more at the link.

For further discussion, see my cross-post at Terra Rossa.

FILED UNDER: Climate Change, Environment, Published Elsewhere, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tlaloc says:

    Where Gore and I differ is that my aim is for more people to get to live like Gore. While environmental degradation in general and global warming in particular are real problems, certainly a serious case can be made that they pale in comparison with the ravages of poverty.

    Unless you want to claim that anyone not living in a mansion is automatically poor the counterargument is obvious: we can easily raise the poor up to a comfortable standard of living while restraining the most grotesque abuse of the other end.

    You’ve made a “false dichotomy” argument: If you want to protect the environment you don’t want to help the poor and vice versa, when in fact you can easily do both.

    Actually by restraining the worst excesses you free up so many resources that raising the standard of the poor would seem to be childs play. Environmental issues and income disparity are not separate issues, even if they seem so on cursory examination.

    Both have to do with managing the flow of energy to produce the greatest good and least harm. And both are remarkably similar in certain atttributes: investing a huge amount of energy into a small geographic or demographic locale is inherently unstable. Diversification and relatively even distribution of resources and means works much better.

  2. James Joyner says:

    You’ve made a “false dichotomy” argument: If you want to protect the environment you don’t want to help the poor and vice versa, when in fact you can easily do both.

    That is my argument.

    Diversification and relatively even distribution of resources and means works much better.

    Where exactly has that ever worked? I can cite plenty of examples of countries where a few people got mega-rich while simultaneously vastly improving the material life of their countrymen; I can’t, off the top of my head, think of an example where “relatively even distribution of resources” produced anything but the consumption of said resources. Quite possibly, they abound and have simply escaped my attention.

  3. Tlaloc says:

    That is my argument.

    Claiming ownership of it doesn’t prevent it from being a false dichotomy. 🙂

    Why would it be impossible to help the poor while restraining environmental damage? Are you going to argue that environmental policies are so massively expensive that they will utterly preclude any form of responsible social welfare?

    That seems pretty farcical given that the kyoto agreement, that the right howled so badly about, would have cost something like $325 billion over *decades.* Meanwhile we’ve spent far more than that on Iraq in four years. Somehow our country absorbed the cost of that (not without pain of course but we’ve survived).
    Source on Kyoto cost

    Meanwhile we pour $10 billion a year into Missile Defense and that’s never worked and never will. We’ve plenty of boondoggles that could be cut and would by themselves cover the cost of an environmental policy, not even mentioning that environmental policies tend to be far more efficient in the first place.

    Where exactly has that ever worked? I can cite plenty of examples of countries where a few people got mega-rich while simultaneously vastly improving the material life of their countrymen;

    No what you can point to is examples of people getting mega-rich while their countrymen manage to get better ANYWAY. The rich sopping up a dispropotionate amount of resources never helps their fellow, only hurts. Their is a finite pool of resources at any given moment, yes that pool can expand over time as value is added through industry, but if the rich simply continue to gobble up more and more then there is only a marginal net benefit to the group who gain only because the rich fail to monopolize everything.

    There is absolutely no economic benefit to extreme economic disparity. Meanwhile there is a huge social instability factor. In the US we’ve managed to push this off for some time because of our amazing facility at spectacle and distraction but either the system changes voluntarily or we’re headed for a french revolution style change.

    I can’t, off the top of my head, think of an example where “relatively even distribution of resources” produced anything but the consumption of said resources.

    Well you’re forgetting the single greatest success story of the modern age: the internet. It is the ultimate example of the power of distributed resources and the inherent power and stability of such a system.

  4. James Joyner says:

    No what you can point to is examples of people getting mega-rich while their countrymen manage to get better ANYWAY. The rich sopping up a dispropotionate amount of resources never helps their fellow, only hurts.

    That’s precisely the opposite of economic reality.

    Well you’re forgetting the single greatest success story of the modern age: the internet. It is the ultimate example of the power of distributed resources and the inherent power and stability of such a system.

    But the Internet, in the sense we understand it, was created by entrepreneurs seeking to get rich. Netscape, Google, Yahoo, eBay, PayPal–you name it–have made the Web what it is. The result–a mere byproduct of the Invisible Hand–has been a massive creation of wealth that’s been widely distributed. A handful of people, though, got filthy, stinkin’ reach. Several now own sports teams.

  5. Steven Plunk says:

    Well said James Joyner. Gore can and should enjoy all his wealth in the manner he chooses. I would still call it hypocrisy in the way he tells us how we should live. If he chooses to preach to us in such a public manner then he should expect public scrutiny of his lifestyle.

    My big problem with Gore is his appealing to the baser instincts of the environmental movement. The fantasy of living not in the future but in the past. This ignores the realities that must be faced if we are to expect a cleaner environment. Market incentives and affluence will lead to cleaner ways. Though I think we are pretty darn clean right now (the United States).

    Those who seek the socialist solutions of resource redistribution and punishing success are looking at the wrong solutions. I suspect they are more likely just using potential environmental harm (like global warming) to get the economic system they have desired for so long. Nothing like threatening mankind to get people to go green and nothing like going green to force socialist economic policies.

    The fasle dichotomy claim concerning responsible environmental policies conflicting with policies to help the poor misleads. You can have both but the success of each can be limited if you have to bow to two masters at every turn. A proven path of economic prosperity leading to good environmental stewardship is already confirmed so we should continue to follow it rather then embark upon unproven paths of heavy government controls.

  6. Tlaloc says:

    That’s precisely the opposite of economic reality.

    How so? As I said above at any given moment the sum total of available money is a given amount. If 5% of the population hoards say 30% of the money it isn’t hard to see that 95% of the populous is splitting 70% of the cash. Given that we all have a certain overhead that must be met before we have the nice spongy disposable income that a thriving capitalism craves, and furthermore given that the wealthy put a disproportionate amount of their money away into savings, long term investments, off shore investments, and so on and hence they turn over a smaller proportion of the cash they do have on hand, it isn’t hard to see where a vast amount of income disparity is harmful to the economy rather than helpful.

    Feel free to provide a counter argument.

    But the Internet, in the sense we understand it, was created by entrepreneurs seeking to get rich. Netscape, Google, Yahoo, eBay, PayPal—you name it—have made the Web what it is.

    No, even those big services are just blips. Consider that, by far, the greatest single internet business area is porn and yet it only accounts for 1% of the web in total. The web is amazingly diverse, that’s it strength. Google could go belly up tomorrow and the internet would keep functioning with no problem.

    A distributed system is stable because it is not critically dependent on any one area or object.

    Consider this in terms of energy dependence. We established an infrastructure that relied almost exclusively on fossil fuels and what’s more relegated each fossil fuel to supporting just one critical aspect of our society (oil for transportation, coal for energy generation, and natural gas for heating). A serious disruption to any of those three causes us a huge head ache because we had no way to really compensate except to lose productivity (and in some cases lives) until the supply was restored. It is an extreme vulnerability of our system. A better system would have made it possible for all three supplies (oil, gas, coal) to feed all three needs (transport, heating, energy). And a better scenario yet would have us diversifing far further so that fossil fuels were merely a component portion of our total energy sources.

  7. Tlaloc says:

    The fasle dichotomy claim concerning responsible environmental policies conflicting with policies to help the poor misleads. You can have both but the success of each can be limited if you have to bow to two masters at every turn.

    That could be said of any series of governmental priorities. Want a military and you want to help the poor? You won’t be able to do either as well as if you just specialized! True, but no government can get by having just one policy interest. We have a multitude of national interests, the difference is that the rest of the country is starting to realize just how high up the list environmental issues needs to be.

    A proven path of economic prosperity leading to good environmental stewardship is already confirmed so we should continue to follow it rather then embark upon unproven paths of heavy government controls.

    Proven? Confirmed? Where precisely?

  8. Tlaloc says:

    But the Internet, in the sense we understand it, was created by entrepreneurs seeking to get rich. Netscape, Google, Yahoo, eBay, PayPal—you name it—have made the Web what it is.

    Something else just leapt out at me: the services you mention are all facilitators. That is they all work to help people make the most use of the distributed nature of the web. Netscape of course provided a mean to see what others had done or were doing on the web. google is a navigation service. Ebay and paypal are not themselves sellers but facilitate people selling to each other. Again- distribution of resources. Rather than a single feed that tells you what you are interested in you have google that lets you find what you want for yourself. Rather than a single storefront you have a system so that individual sellers become their own stores and move merchandise more efficiently to where it is wanted.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Rather than a single feed that tells you what you are interested in you have google that lets you find what you want for yourself. Rather than a single storefront you have a system so that individual sellers become their own stores and move merchandise more efficiently to where it is wanted.

    Right. That’s what free markets inevitably create. Rather than one kind of car, you get dozens of cars each from Ford, Chevy, Pontiac, Buick, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, Infiniti, Jeep, Porshe, etc. All those companies provide thousands of jobs. Indeed, their distributorships are mostly sole proprietorships. Free markets equal choice which equals freedom.

  10. Rick DeMent says:

    The idea that any market is truly free however is a serious misunderstanding in how they actually work and are maintained. In the strictest sense there is no such thing as a “free” market. All markets have rules, governance, infrastructure, and regulations so that people can participate in them with a full understanding of what they are getting into. Sock exchanges are heavily regulated both by the government and internally or no one would invest in them. When you guys say “free market” you don’t really mean “free for all market”. The kinds of things Mr. Tlaloc is suggesting is not in any way counter to the broader definition of free markets that you all employ. There is no Free Market in energy, oil is controlled by a cartel, Electricity is heavenly regulated in all it’s forms and energy is wealth when you break it down.

    When James et all speak of free markets your really only discussing the kind of institutions that are great for selling consumer goods. Not economic structures that are good for solving large national and global structural problems like energy distribution.

  11. Tlaloc says:

    Right. That’s what free markets inevitably create. Rather than one kind of car, you get dozens of cars each from Ford, Chevy, Pontiac, Buick, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, Infiniti, Jeep, Porshe, etc. All those companies provide thousands of jobs. Indeed, their distributorships are mostly sole proprietorships. Free markets equal choice which equals freedom.

    Come on, you know that’s bull. “Free” markets inevitably strangle choice because one competitor sooner or later manages to get a death hold monopoly and kills off any rivals (Perhaps you’ve heard of microsoft?). The only exception is when the competitors enter into collusion and divvy up territory to maintain mini-monopolies where they have a cad’s agreement not to compete with each other (cable companies).

    A free market is the most unstable element in the universe. It has a half life of about a nano-second. Without significant government oversight no capitalism can actually survive “in the wild.” In the economics classroom? Sure. But economics classes and reality have never had any significant overlap, now have they?

  12. James Joyner says:

    “Free” markets inevitably strangle choice because one competitor sooner or later manages to get a death hold monopoly and kills off any rivals

    While competition weeds out inefficient enterprises, it seldom leads to monopoly. Even libertarian purists, starting with Adam Smith, believed it was legitimate for govt to step in and regulate against collusion.

  13. Bandit says:

    Come on, you know that’s bull. “Free” markets inevitably strangle choice because one competitor sooner or later manages to get a death hold monopoly and kills off any rivals

    Really? In what fantasy world? Maybe you better visit the local likker store and check the beer aisle.

  14. spencer says:

    that, contrary to conventional wisdom, as societies become more affluent, they produce less pollution

    Isn’t the correct statement as societies become more affluent the produce less pollution per unit of output.

    The average affluent OECD citizen will produce more pollution then the average African even if the OECD
    citizen is more efficient then the African counterpart.

    If this is correct the proper policy is still to increase energy efficiency.

    Second, I doubt that Gore differs significantly from you in his desire to reduce poverty. It is just that he makes a very different estimate of the impact of pollution on poverty. His policy position is that if we allowed pollution to continue growing unchecked is that it will have severe economic consequences that will increase poverty. while you seem to be taking a zero or negative sum game that spending to reduce pollution will make poverty worse. At best, you seem to be taking a very narrow view of what constitutes economic well being. Yes, there was a cost to reducing smog in Los Angles, for example.
    But it does not mean that the poor residences of LA are worse off because they have paid a price to get clean air.

  15. James Joyner says:

    But it does not mean that the poor residences of LA are worse off because they have paid a price to get clean air.

    They likely aren’t at this stage although I suspect there were more poor people created during the transition period, in the form of lost jobs and higher prices. It’s a trade-off, though, and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect firms to minimize the negative externalities on the community.

    And I’m sure Gore wants to alleviate poverty; I don’t mean to imply that he’s a bad man. But things like Kyoto necessarily burden the developing societies more than those at the top of the heap. Then again, harming the most productive countries doesn’t do the poor much good, either.

  16. Tlaloc says:

    While competition weeds out inefficient enterprises, it seldom leads to monopoly.

    The history of free commerce would suggest otherwise. There is no force in free market capitalism that restrains a successful company from leveraging that success so as to make it a permanent fixture. Ma Bell. US Steel. Microsoft. These are not exceptions to the rule. They are the rule. Without strong government safe guards monopoly control is the inevitable end of free market capitalism because the opportunity will exist eventually and there is no reason a company won’t exploit it.

    Even libertarian purists, starting with Adam Smith, believed it was legitimate for govt to step in and regulate against collusion.

    In other words even the founding father of free market capitalism admits it doesn’t work! A free market isn’t free if there is an outide entity manipulating it and you just admitted that it has to have such manipulation or it is unstable.

    A functioning free market is much like a functioning communist state: nice theory, but impossible to implement in reality.

  17. Tlaloc says:

    Really? In what fantasy world? Maybe you better visit the local likker store and check the beer aisle.

    So you think beer manufacturers exist in a free market? Are you unaware that the US government does indeed regulate commerce?

    Are you unfamiliar with what the term “free market” means? It means capitalism that proceeds without regulation: free to proceed as dictated merely by the whims of the market. The US is not a free market. We have highly regulated capitalistic commerce.

    That diversity of product you see in the “likker” aisle is a function of the US government preventing monopoly and collusion. I.e. the opposite of a free market.

  18. James Joyner says:

    Are you unfamiliar with what the term “free market” means?

    Apparently you are, I’m afraid. No serious Liberal thinker from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman has ever argued the virtues of anarchy. Even Liberals want government to exist as a referee to enforce basic rules.

    The essence of free trade is that the exchange be voluntary. You can’t simultaneously have a free transaction and collusion.

  19. Bandit says:

    That diversity of product you see in the “likker” aisle is a function of the US government preventing monopoly and collusion.

    Uhhh…no – It’s the results of both national and foreign entreprenuers freely selling their products to consumers who are freely purchasing them. Gov’t regulates access to the products and imposes taxes and tariffs and requires the retailer to collect the taxes and turn them over to the gov’t.

  20. Tlaloc says:

    Apparently you are, I’m afraid. No serious Liberal thinker from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman has ever argued the virtues of anarchy. Even Liberals want government to exist as a referee to enforce basic rules.

    Which again just goes to prove even the hard core free marketeers admit that their system fails.

    The essence of free trade is that the exchange be voluntary. You can’t simultaneously have a free transaction and collusion.

    How can it be voluntary if you have government regulation? Short answer- it can’t. Which is why the free marketeers oppose government regulation. Except that at the end of the day they know their system can’t work as envisioned.

    You can’t have it both ways, James. You are trying to simultaneously argue that free marketeers are fine with government regulation and that government regulation kills free market competition. Pick one.

    Or better yet abandon the farcical notion altogether.

  21. Tlaloc says:

    Uhhh…no – It’s the results of both national and foreign entreprenuers freely selling their products to consumers who are freely purchasing them. Gov’t regulates access to the products and imposes taxes and tariffs and requires the retailer to collect the taxes and turn them over to the gov’t.

    They do a lot more than that. They, for instance, prevent a Miller-Budweiser conglomerate from buying out all the microbreweries and leaning on the ingredient manufacturers not to sell to other companies. basic anti-monopolistic controls. Without which you would have exactly one beer to buy.

    Again this isn’t theory this is fact: Ma Bell. Microsoft. US Steel. Monopolies are the lowest energy state for a free market, they will inevitably settle down to that state given enough time. Inevitably.

  22. James Joyner says:

    Which again just goes to prove even the hard core free marketeers admit that their system fails.

    Uh, no. It proves that your definition of “free market” is a straw man.