Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sustainable Living and Moral Licensing

Moral licensing as explained in the Sunday, July 18th 2010 Washington Post article by Michael S. Rosenwald is one way to describe the seemingly perplexing behaviors that humans engage in. His headline example of swearing by solar heat and driving a Hummer is eye catching, but seemingly unlikely- they didn’t sell many Hummers. Another example of moral licensing is as the commonly attributed cause for the statistic that Prius drivers drive more total miles. However, I prefer to frame this as green budgeting. Instead of driving more miles because they have a Prius, the people whose lives require or include lots of driving and are concerned about sustainable living or the environment choose to drive a Prius. Then there is me; I drive less than 4,000 miles a year, but have a hybrid. Clearly, it makes no economic sense. It is a limited budgetry excess to stay within my conceptual green budget. The life I live (now) requires that I own and drive a car. The hybrid is how I deal with that fact.

In order to live your values, you need to know what your values are and how to go about living them. Seemingly inconsistent choices may result from limted knowledge, information and insight on a topic or simply be part of the trade offs people make in balancing all their life choices. My green budget is an imperfect way to measure my environmental impact to the earth both positive and negative. My true goal is to live a rich and joyous life that is sustainable in all ways. To live sustainably, all aspects of your life- work, entertainment, everyday living, life choices, vacations have to be intergrated into a sustainable plan. Choices have to be made to achieve this, but there really is no sustainable framework to measure and evaluate all those choices. Some have tried to frame sustainable living solely as measured by carbon footprint, but that ignores water, the caring for renewable resources and the allocation of limited resources.

If you will recall, last spring Wal-Mart committed to reduce the carbon footprint from the life cycle of Wal-Mart’s products and supply chain by 20 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent over the next five years. In part this will be accomplished by having Wal-Mart use their leverage with their supply chain to influence the environmental practices, transportation, and storage of their supplying manufacturer. Part of this reduction will be accomplished by Wal-Mart’s customers who will be educated in more sustainable use of a product. A typical example of customer education is recommending that customers use cold water to wash laundry instead of hot. Some of reduction in Wal-Mart’s carbon impact is smoke and mirrors, but some is truly real. Wal-Mart will engage in an examination and improvement in how things are done in their supply chain and store management, but all decisions will be made based on how much carbon will be saved. The smallest carbon footprint is not always the right answer.

On Wednesday, July 28th 2010 the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Libby Copeland “In Search of the Green Cookout.” In this article she compares the traditional cookout with full fat beef, traditional hot dogs, plastic plates, table cloth and cutlery and conventionaly made ingredients for Smores and condiments to a “green” cookout. The green cookout featured grass fed beef, organic and grass fed hot dogs, disposable plates made from fallen palm leaves, bamboo cutlery, organic ingredient for smores, and green recycled paper table cloth. No measurement was made as to the different impacts these two cookouts would have, but the underlying assumption was merely a substitution of products. Green is achieved by shopping and spending more money. Buying a greener disposable plate or an organic marshmallow is not the answer.

For my most recent cookout, I, too, used grass fed beef. Several times a year, I buy bulk beef from Polyface farms. I drive the 38 mile round trip in my hybrid to pick up the meat at the drop off location. Of course this required that I have a large freezer to store the meat and despite being energy star it still uses electricity. To give my grass fed steaks full flavor (and minimize the formation of carcinogens) I marinate the meat in my own red wine and herb mixture for at least one day. Silly me, since we were cooking out in the backyard I used my everyday plates, my stainless steel cutlery, my casserole dishes to serve the organic Greek pasta salad I made using whole wheat pasta and the bounty of Jimmy Phillips garden, a friend who grows organic vegetables and always plants too much. (His heirloom tomatoes are to die for and free!) For a table cloth I used one of the cotton/poly mix tablecloth I bought years ago when I got the table for the deck and really did not want to iron a table cloth.

There are lots of compromises and tradeoffs in my cookout and life. The basic belief I have is that the greenest product is the one I already own. Reusable is better than disposable; though the disposable versus cotton diaper wars/ discussion highlighted the different ways to evaluate that decision. My choice for sustainably and naturally raised beef from Polyface is about healthful eating and humane treatment of the animals. Years ago, as part of my job I evaluated the environmental impact of CAFOs and farms in the northwest. After a few inspections of both conventional farming operations and alternative and organic farming operations the extra cost seemed more than worthwhile. I have not eaten conventionally raised food since. Thought I have not developed a way to calculate the various impacts on the earth of buying sustainably raised meat and storing it in my freezer for months at a time versus other choices, it is a choice I make. The reality is my husband expects to eat meat (or fish) every day and for health reasons and what I saw in the northwest I buy grass fed, pasture raised meat and wild fish. I embrace the philosophy that the Salatins have used for Polyface Farms, though I really do not know where my choice of meat fits into my green budget.

In a world with imperfect knowledge, we guess sometimes in silly ways and engage in green budgeting which may include a big dose of self delusion or advertised enhanced corporate illusions. In a pilot study performed on dairy suppliers, the Environmental Defense Fund analyzed the costs and greenhouse gas emissions associated with a gallon of milk, from dairy farm to distribution center. By gathering and looking at the data, the Environmental Defense Fund identified the easily achieved improvements that “best practices” farm management can have in energy used to produce milk. Simple changes in fertilizer and manure management, at dairy processing facilities can achieve significant improvements in energy efficiency and even in the product itself, such as making milk shelf-stable. It is not always the product that matter, but how that product comes to be that is important. Best management practices, BMPs, can deliver more than a reduced carbon footprint; they can protect the watershed, streams and rivers. Soil and Conservation Districts nationwide have been aware of the improvements in environmental stewardship that can be achieved though simple improvements in farm practices; however, these organizations have not had any leverage to encourage farmers and dairy operations to implement these practices or adequate budget to develop farm plans. Some conservation districts certify farms that have embraced BMPs. Look for products from local farms that have embraced BMPs.

Sustainable living is not about buying the right product, though that is a small part of it. Sustainable living is the sum total of all aspects of your life and all the decision and tradeoffs you make. What is your life’s work, where you live, what things you choose to buy or not buy, medical care versus treatment, healthful living, activities you engage in, exercise, vacations, eating out, cooking at home, hobbies, all the activities and choices you make in your life. The little things you choose to do, recycle, compost, water or fertilize your garden, the temperature you choose for your home, and how you maintain your heating and air-conditioning units. We protect, use or abuse the earth’s resources in every aspect of our lives, but have no clear way to measure and evaluate our choices and so we find that we engage in perplexing behaviors trying to make choices without a clear framework for decision making.

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