Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Ulysses and the Hedge Trimmer

As published in The Washington Post , January 1, 2008; A11

UPS delivered my hedge trimmer a few weeks ago. Actually, it is not just a hedge trimmer but has interchangeable heads so that it can trim grass, mow down brush and cut small tree limbs. The whole thing was a steal: $359. As I powered it up, I felt mild pangs of guilt -- the two-cycle contraption uses a mixture of oil and gas to cool the engine as well as fuel it, which makes it not just copiously smelly but also a behemoth when it comes to producing carbon dioxide.
If you think that is bad, so do I -- especially since I could have bought a slightly more expensive four-cycle model that does not require mixing the oil and gas. And I know better. But my knowledge did not translate into action. I knew I was doing wrong. I even agonized about doing wrong. But it did not stop me.
My weakness, what Aristotle called "akrasia," is something Ulysses knew a lot about when he instructed his crew to tie him to the mast when they passed the Sirens. Me, I need to be tied up going to Home Depot. We're not talking just about garden tools. I have also suffered from akrasia when it comes to my car. My car gets 40 miles per gallon but is not a Prius -- it is a dirty, used diesel. I couldn't resist the initial low price and the promise of ongoing savings.
On and on it goes. I spend most of my waking hours worrying about how to reduce my output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Yet my behavior seems to march to a different drummer. I need to get the best deal. For me, not the world. When it comes to what counts as the best deal, my values don't get incorporated into the calculation. I am attuned only to price. And I don't think I am alone in this.
Fine, you say. Big deal. The solution is obvious: We adjust the price to make the "right thing" priced right for me. But here is another problem -- when it comes to pricing I am totally irrational. Offer me two washing machines, one that is more expensive now but more efficient over its lifetime, and hence cheaper in the long run, and I'll choose the one that is cheaper now. I can do the calculation in my head using a formula of the discounted value of future savings to see how much they are worth in present-day dollars. But behavioral economists would say my actual discounting is hyperbolic. In the end, all I care about is the deal today. The sad truth is that if you want me to buy the more efficient machine, you will have to give me a subsidy upfront to make it no more expensive than the inefficient one.
No problem, you might say. We don't need to waste money on subsidies; we can just create a tax to make the washing machines' prices equivalent, the same for the prices of the diesel and the Prius, and the two-cycle trimmer and the four-cycle version, and so on. Then you will step into line.
But there is another problem. I like Hummers. Not the really big Hummer I, but the more demure Hummer II. I like its boxy design and its commanding presence on the road. I secretly desire to command the road. Here I am not irrational, just retrograde when it comes to my preferences. And if my preferences are strong enough and my wallet is large enough, no tax is going to make me give up my Hummer for a Prius.
I am not alone in loving Hummers. An effective tax will have to take into account all variety of Hummer lovers, the strength of their preferences and the size of their wallets.
I say: Better not to tempt me in the first place. Take the Hummers away. Don't clutter my world with things I should not have. Don't dangle them in front of me, creating desire, only to then try to have me renounce them. Just ban the damn two-cycle hedge trimmer and let me be done with the matter.


Anonymous said...

The problem with your solution to remove Hummers from the marketplace is two-fold: banning them outright is anti-free market AND they are also huge generators of profits, like all SUVs.

As for diesels - I too drive one - but a much more recent partly environmentally friendly one. The ones coming to the US in 2008 (and already in Europe for 2+ years) are the interim solution, not hybrids. The systematic cost of hybrids, including battery disposal, etc has yet to be evaluated (as far as I have been able to find out).

dan said...


Good oped in the Post the other day, it was highlighted on Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog, too. So you will prob get lots of page views this week!

As someone involved with climate change issues, have you ever heard about or considered the idea of "polar cities" to house potential survivors of global warming in the far distant future, say year 2500 or so? I know it sounds sci fi and way out there, but take a look at some images and can back to me, pro or con, when you have time. Do you think humans might have to live in polar cities someday, for survival of the species, what's your POV on this? Email me at danbloom gmail and take a look here: http://pcillu101.blogspot.com

Happy New Year 12,008!

thebman said...

Dear Bunzl,

I applaud your honest self evaluation and concur! Two stroke "ANYTHING" should be banned from the marketplace! Two stroke engines, used primarily in lawn and garden care appliances and recreation vehicles (motorcycles/watersports) purportedly create more pollution than all the cars in America. As a society we know better than to permit this type of device, as individuals, well, we just don't stack up to our lofty ideals. If the most green concerned citizens among us are environmental sinners, albeit remorseful ones, it shows that we cannot rely on individual discretion to police Earth's ongoing health! Let's ban two stroke engines!

All that being said, here's my question... Where do we draw the line? Two stroke engines are monstrous and any informed individual will agree that there is no good reason for their continued existance: four stroke engines provide a clean alternative at a acceptable price. Now let's take a look at the Hummer: just how much more does a Hummer 2 damage the environment than a BMW 335i, about twice as much 20/city vs 10/city; I submit that their capacity for ecological damage is roughly equivalent when you compare either to a 1995 geo metro at 48 mpg. Are you going to ban BMW's as well?

Your hedge trimmer creates one hundred times the pollution of one Hummer... get rid of the trimmer and buy three Hummers why don't ya?
The only advantage to the trimmer is that your general lack of concern for the environment isn't as widely advertised! The Hummer is the poster boy for the ecologically insensitive, but banning it outright?

What about creating a carbon offset tax on ALL combustion driven devices, earmarking the funds for environmental spending only? You pollute, you pay to clean up! So... the hummer may cost you about 10K USD in carbon tax, but the trimmer would cost you about 100K USD in carbon taxes. Would you still buy it?


Anonymous said...

Martin -
I applaud your honesty. I have a number of relatives of such disposition - big "environmentalists", they live in an exclusive seaside neighborhood and drive a 2-ton van 3 miles on scenic roads to a factory they own which makes lead lined sound insulation for large (think Aga Khan) luxury yaughts. I recall bicycling 14 miles to work; they were critical of my big old clunker car (to get to job interviews) which I bought b/c it was cheap, large cars being out of style at the time. Oh... they had 2 heated structures on their triple sized lot. They need to keep an extra house around, as there's a tax advantage to having house #2 as the "office". No doubt they have a Prius by now for use during HOV hours.
What we need to do is obvious - ban overconsumptive *people* rather than focus on things. People who have the means will find outlets for their desires, perhaps transferring consumption to less regulated modes. Since consumption relates quite closely to wealth and income, we can simply ship the higher income AND wealth folks (including virtually all of the "pro-environment" crowd over age 30) to someplace where their consumption will be curtailed. Preferable by boat, perhaps powered by oars.

George Marshall said...

The only thing that counts is the actual emissions. I can't see the emissions from a hedge trimmer being such a big deal.

My car is even worse than yours. I drive an old petrol driven volvo- it is shared with a family and rarely used more than once a week. It was cheap and I like driving it. It is poor in emissions terms but in terms of my overall footprint it is OK.

So I reckon that it is the overall perspective and actual emissions that really matters. You could trim a lot of hedges before it adds up to one short haul flight.