Feb 232009
Authors: Ian Bezek

I’ve been criticized recently as being “against the environment,” but nothing could be further from the truth.

I’m environmentally conscious and personally have a very small footprint upon nature. Among other things, I don’t even have a car — a rare feat among modern Americans.

That said, as an economics major, instead of viewing the environment emotionally, I ask how much will proposed policies cost and what benefits we’ll get in return.

Take pesticides for instance – discussing them causes strong reaction in people as they’re perceived to be dangerous, but, according to Reason, a political magazine, they only cause 20 deaths a year — they’re virtually harmless. The cost of trying to reduce the total pesticide deaths from 20 to, say, 10 would be enormous to save very few lives.

On the other hand, almost no attention is paid to particulate air pollution, which kills over 100,000 people a year. Based purely on numbers, pesticides are irrelevant and should not be an issue to environmentalists, whereas air pollution should be among our highest priorities.

When one applies this sort of economic filter to the environmental agenda, a lot of proposals end up being impractical. Take a look at global warming for example — it isn’t even scientifically proven and the costs to fight this theoretical danger are enormous.

The implementation of the Kyoto Protocol would only slightly reduce carbon emissions, yet for the same amount of dollars as one would spend implementing Kyoto for just one year’s time, we could provide the entire world with clean water and sanitation.

To me, that’s an easy choice. Clean water will save millions of lives now, whereas possibly preventing the world from heating up at some point in the future doesn’t guarantee the prevention of a single death.

According to environmental statistician Bjorn Lomborg, spending a mere $300 million dollars a year could save 250,000 lives in the developing world. This could be achieved by giving people simple medicines such as aspirin to prevent heart disease. Thus, for every $25 spent, one life could be saved.

However, let’s take a look at organic farming.

Charitably, let’s assume it saves 100 lives (which, seeing as how pesticides only kill 20 people a year is being extremely generous). The organic industry brought in more than $20 billion last year. Thus $20 billion was spent to save (at most) 100 lives. This means that for roughly every $200 million spent on organic foods, one life will be saved.

$200 million to save a life, or 25 bucks? There’s no comparison.

I care for the environment, but realize limited resources are available to care for it. Let’s fight the important battles such as air pollution and impure water.

For instance, regarding air pollution, it’s sad that environmentalists attack uranium mining. How else are we supposed to get power? Clearly oil, coal and natural gas are out. Wind power is responsible for quite possibly the worst avian genocide in our planet’s history, while solar power plants require polysilicon, the manufacture of which creates the extremely hazardous by-product silicon tetrachloride, which, according to a professor at Hebei Industrial University causes, “the land where you dump or bury it [to] be infertile.”

Rather than blindly cheering on renewables, let’s have a reasonable debate about different power sources.

Instead of opposing nuclear power, environmentalists should embrace it is as one of the cleanest, safest, and cheapest sources of power. The American environmentalist movement has its head in the (smog-filled) clouds.

Let’s focus on the things we can fix, like stamping out malaria overseas, phasing out fossil fuels in America and providing clean water rather than fighting expensive wars against illusory enemies such as the ozone hole, pesticides or nuclear power.

Ian Bezek is a junior economics major. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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