The enemy of progress on environmental issues

April 15, 2007 7:39 pm

I was surprised at a headline in the newspaper the other day: California (or was it just the San Francisco Bay Area) is officially in a drought this year. Strange, when just last year there was more than enough water to go around. We are being asked to save 10% of our usual water consumption this year.

One way to accomplish this is installing low-flow shower heads and installing drip irrigation systems instead of the sprinkler systems that are so ubiquitous around here. That got me thinking about how we can contribute to saving 10% of our water consumption. We already have low-flow shower heads installed. So the only thing to do extra there is turning off the water while soaping up, which should be doable.

But what about the watering system? We’re renting the house we live in, like so many people here in this hyper-priced area. We could ask our landlord to upgrade the system, but why should he? There’s not really anything in it for him. We pay the water bill, not he. It would only cause hassles. And cost him money. You can imagine how this plays out for other areas where it would be a good idea to improve the house to lessen your impact on the environment. Double-paned windows, attic and wall insulation, light fixtures that allow for energy efficient lighting to be installed (our house has the first two already, luckily). Usually there is no reason whatsoever for someone to make these improvements to a rental house.

This line of reasoning extends to a lot of other areas as well. Think about what we consider a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (and global warming) - cars. There are millions and millions of cars on the streets that spew out tons and tons of carbon-dioxide, but work just fine, thank you. Ours does (so far, knock on wood.) There is no incentive for people to suddenly sell their old car and buy a new one. And imagine what would happen if everyone wanted to do that at the same time, owing to some miracle. Due to the enormous supply of cars, the price you could get for your old car would plummet. That would make it even less attractive, even if everyone had a change of consciousness suddenly.

All if this leads me to believe that one of the large problems that has to be solved politically to work on environmental issues is how to deal with the “installed base” (to use a software development term.) I have no idea how to do that without using taxation. It’s not like you can just push down an update over the Internet. And I know very well that talking about taxes in the U.S. is almost the same as committing political suicide. So if you are concerned about issues like this and have some bright ideas that don’t involve taxes, let’s hear them!

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