Aug 272007
Authors: Seth Anthony

Saving the planet is the latest fad.

Just the other day, I saw a bumper sticker that read: “I wish my car ran on biodiesel.” The owner of the car must have though giving the impression that he cared about the environment was as important or more important than actually doing so.

That driver isn’t alone, though.

A recent survey, described in the New York Times, detailed how a growing percentage of buyers of Toyota’s signature hybrid, the Prius, are motivated by the fact that their car “makes a statement” about them, rather than the fact that it emits fewer noxious gases.

Environmentalists are still reeling from the sudden success of “green” in the marketplace. What they’ve unsuccessfully tried to sell for decades is now being marketed by major corporations and slick multimedia presentations.

Like it or not, the environmental craze is being led by the old corporate stalwarts – advertising firms and Hollywood.

But what happens when the bubble bursts? What happens when “green” is no longer cool, or, even worse, we learn that “green” products may not be so great for the planet?

It’s coming out that the gas savings for hybrids, especially with city driving, isn’t as large as the ads have claimed. Buying carbon credits, we’ve learned, may actually result in more deforestation – and bizarrely, driving may actually result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions than walking the same distance.

Whether it’s a few months or a few years from now, the green trend will fade, like all fads do, and we’ll be back to the status quo.

What those of us who care about the Earth need to keep in mind, though, is that the free market and the human desire to save money won’t go away.

And that’s not a bad thing for the environmentalist movement, either, especially since the oldest and simplest of market signals – cost – can help us save the planet. Cost in dollars and cents is often one of the best ways to know how much impact your actions have on the environment.

Nowhere is this truer than in the areas of power and water. Every homeowner knows the more you use, the more you spend, and the same rules can apply on campus.

Some universities – like CSU – have the conservation plan a bit backwards. They give students the option of paying $17 per semester to “purchase green power,” ostensibly from nearby wind farms. The catch, though, is that you’re actually buying “renewable energy credits” and there’s no guarantee that the “wind power” you purchase was actually generated by a wind turbine.

But even if you really were buying wind power, isn’t it backwards to conserve by paying more? Shouldn’t conservation actually mean using fewer resources and therefore reducing both the environmental and fiscal cost?

It would make more sense, if universities really are eager for students to reduce their environmental footprint, for them to provide students with tools to actually consume less.

A dollars-and-cents based conservation plan would start with equipping dorms with electrical and water meters so that usage could be tracked by room or suite.

Students could be given a choice – they could take the “conservation challenge” and, if they have lower-than-average water or power use, they’d only be billed for what they use. If they used more, or didn’t opt in, they’d pay a flat utility rate, just like the flat rate that’s built into dorm costs now.

Common sense programs like this would not only save natural resources, but would be good for people’s bank accounts.

Environmentalists could accomplish a lot if they realize the power of financial incentives in a free market – but perhaps conservationists learning from conservatives is just too radical an idea.

Seth Anthony is a chemistry Ph.D. student. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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