The New Yorker’s David Owen identifies the problems for the environment that have emerged with the economic downturn (and eventual recovery):
How do we persuade people to drive less—an environmental necessity—while also encouraging them to revive our staggering economy by buying new cars?
The popular answer—switch to hybrids—leaves the fundamental
problem unaddressed. Increasing the fuel efficiency of a car is mathematically indistinguishable from lowering the price of its fuel; it’s just fiddling with the other side of the equation. If doubling the cost of gas gives drivers an environmentally valuable incentive to drive less… then doubling the efficiency of cars makes that incentive disappear. Getting more miles to the gallon is of no benefit to the environment if it leads to an increase in driving—and the response of drivers to decreases in the cost of driving is to drive more.
This observation (and others) derive from Owen’s thesis that
the world’s principal source of man-made greenhouse gases has always been prosperity…. Fossil fuels are forms of leverage: oil, coal, and natural gas are multipliers of labor [read: they lend more productivity per unit labor] in much the same way that credit is a multiplier of wealth.
Thus economic recovery and environmental recovery are, in today’s carbon-based energy climate, paradoxical: increased consumption (the remedy to the prior) leads to (and requires) increased production, which in turn requires oil, coal and natural gas. Unless green technology somehow becomes more widely available and efficient immediately – and it won’t, unfortunately – much of the momentum created for actual change in our environmental policies during the 2008 presidential campaign may be lost in the depths of the recession.