Saturday, August 14, 2010

The cost of greening

From the heights of greenwashing, to the costs of compromising. Or at least that's what struck me this week, as I read about various calls to green practices all met by the same chorus: this is no time for adding expense, no matter what the health and environmental cost! Hello?

What kind of cost-benefit analysis justifies waking pre-schoolers up from a phthalated nap on their vinyl mats (as uncovered by Deidre) to go for a hour of rollicking in an lead-riddled "bounce house"? While this sounds like a scenario California would have banned years ago, it's one that was just identified at a summer day camp in Berkeley. A lawsuit has been filed against vendors like Cutting Edge Creations, Inc. whose senior vice-president was quoted as saying: "California already has many financial problems. Do they really wish to potentially place thousands of small business-owners that operate children's party centers out of business?" Let's give some credit here to the small business owner, who is unlikely to bank on the appeal of materials that contain lead at 5,000 - 29,000 parts per million when the federal limit is currently 300 and to the informed California consumer, who is now able to do their own cost analysis on allowing their children to play where the long term effects range from behavioral problems to neurological defects.

The chorus also sang out this week in Ohio, where farmers are resisting more humane treatment of egg-laying hens, pregnant sows and veal calves. An agreement has been reached banning future use of "extreme caging methods," which The Humane Society notes produces a rise in stress hormones in these animals. But the cost of better treatment, says the United Egg Producers, a national trade organization, is stress on consumers and school lunch programs who won't be able to afford the 25% rise in egg prices. Clearly, someone's stress has to give, but the assumption that inhumane practices don't come with their own long term cost is a convenient one.

Even a successful transition, like the one Portugal has made to renewable energy, cannot be celebrated without a dampening statement about the costs being too steep to make Portugal to a model for the rest of the world. One might think a country that manages to supply 45% of its electricity from wind, solar, and hydro would be cause for national pride, but the Portuguese fossil fuel industry has been a persuasive detractor. In the assessment of the International Energy Agency in Paris, the cost increase is has not been well-received by consumers, perhaps partly because the increase is not well understood. As a country without fossil fuel resources of its own, Portugal has harnessed its wind, sun and waves for enormous value, in terms of independence and economic and environmental sustainability, and yet that may still be cold comfort when monthly utility bill arrives.

Does all this mean we are hopelessly short term thinkers, who may be persuaded, household by household, to buy Seventh Generation products at a premium, but can't get mainstream consumers or industry groups to think beyond end of the quarter? Maybe factoring in tons of carbon saved or health benefits gained by some of our higher cost choices doesn't motivate enough of us. Would we be better off taxing all materials that may cost less at the check-out counter but much more in terms of allergies, biodiversity, birth defects, cancer, climate change? (That's only a - c by the way; I'll reserve the rest of the alphabet for future blogs!)




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