By Donella Meadows
–August 13, 1998–
When President Clinton announced that he was sending $100 million so Texans suffering from the heat could buy air conditioners, one of my Dartmouth colleagues turned the news into a classroom quiz. What’s wrong with this policy?
It was an environmental studies class, so I hope the students got it right. A good answer would have been something like this. The unusual heat wave may well be related to global warming. Global warming is caused largely by fossil fuel use. More air conditioners means more electricity use, which means, to the extent that Texas power plants burn oil, gas, or coal, the president’s “solution” to the heat problem will make future heat problems worse.
Extra credit for pointing out that air conditioners don’t make heat go away; they just pump it from indoors to outdoors, worsening the “heat island” that forms around every city. The more air conditioners, the hotter it gets for neighbors who then feel the need for air conditioners. This local vicious cycle turns much faster than the global climate one.
Extra extra credit for suggesting better ways to relieve the people in the hot cities. Light-colored paving and rooftops instead of black, to reflect rather than absorb energy. Money for insulation, so houses can be cooled with lower electricity bills. Serious controls on vehicle efficiency, especially sports utility vehicles and pickups, which emit far more greenhouse gas for far less real benefit than do air conditioners.
The students probably would not add that last point, because, as any quick survey of fraternity parking lots quickly reveals, most of them drive sports utility vehicles.
Some of our students feel bad about that. Several of them, on their own initiative, have written papers for me on the topic: “Should an Environmental Studies Student Drive an SUV?” I’ve learned a lot from these papers.
The first thing I learned is why students have high-priced vehicles that assistant professors can’t afford. Their loving parents provide them, often accompanied, my informants tell me, by gas charge-cards, because students can’t afford to keep gas-guzzlers filled up.
Why would a parent who wants to endow a child with motorized mobility choose a two-plus-ton car with a 15-minus-mpg habit? Safety. My informants are unanimous on that point, though they also mention that SUVs are cool and what everyone else has and they wouldn’t be caught dead in a normal-size car.
So I send them to research the safety of SUVs. They come back sobered. Not only, they find, are SUVs poorly designed for safety, liable to tip, not very crashworthy, but they are a special menace to regular cars, which they tend to hit, given their height and mass, in a way that avoids the frame and crushes the passengers.
If I were into turning perverse cycles, I would drive a Mack truck to protect myself from SUVs. My added greenhouse gas emissions would then cause the beleaguered citizens of Texas to buy still more air conditioners. These tactics, mine and theirs, would work until people start buying military tanks to protect themselves from Mack trucks and industrial-size chillers to fend off the waste heat from everyone else’s air conditioners.
What I really want to do, when confronted with vicious cycles like these is to say, hey folks, why don’t we stop turning them?
There are so many. Every time we have a problem that keeps getting worse no matter what we do about it, we probably are earnestly, in the most well-meaning way, doing something that makes the problem worse.
The rising tide of accidental or maniacal or adolescent shootings is clearly connected to the perverse logic of carrying bigger and better and more guns to protect ourselves against guns.
When fishing fleets overfish and decimate fish populations and start losing money, we subsidize them so they can go out and catch still more fish, reducing the populations and raising their costs further, so they will need still more subsidy. (The world’s fisheries sell $80 billion worth of fish each year, which cost $100 billion to catch. Subsidies keep this craziness going, and the subsidies grow as the fish decline.)
The credit card banks spent $3.6 million last year to lobby for a law disallowing personal bankruptcies caused by credit-card debt. Meanwhile the banks send out 3.2 billion card come-ons a year, about one a month for every man, woman, and child of us. They target low- and moderate-income households. The default rate has climbed from 3 percent of outstanding debt in 1994 to 5.6 percent now, which is why the interest rate is so high, which is why more people get in over their heads, which is why the banks keep seeking more cardholders to replace the ones who have maxed themselves out.
Cities and towns encourage development to raise the tax base to lower local taxes, but, as you may have noticed, local taxes rarely get lower, no matter how much development occurs. That’s because additional houses, and often businesses too, cost more in schools and roads and garbage pickups and water and snowplowing and police and sewage treatment than they pay in taxes.
I just thought of a great final exam question for our students. Name three vicious-cycle policies you see in practice around you. For each of them suggest three alternative policies that could pour water rather than fuel on the fire.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998