Defending the virtues of liberty, free markets, and civilization... plus some commentary on the passing scene.

Freedom's Fidelity

Monday, December 20, 2004

Kyoto Dies, Economies Thrive

Ronald Bailey reports from Buenos Aires that Kyoto is dead:

The conventional wisdom that it's the United States against the rest of the world in climate change diplomacy has been turned on its head. Instead it turns out that it is the Europeans who are isolated. China, India, and most of the rest of the developing countries have joined forces with the United States to completely reject the idea of future binding GHG emission limits. At the conference here in Buenos Aires, Italy shocked its fellow European Union members when it called for an end to the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. These countries recognize that stringent emission limits would be huge barriers to their economic growth and future development.

So what now? Two different but complementary paths for addressing any future climate change have emerged from the Buenos Aires Climate Change Conference. The Europeans and activists have been pushing the first, which envisions steep near term reductions (next 20 years) in the emissions of GHG as a way to mitigate projected global warming. On the other hand, the United States has been advocating a technology-push approach in which emissions continue to rise and then GHG concentrations and emissions are cut steeply beginning in about 20 years. Over that time, the US sees the development of new energy efficient technologies, the creation of low cost methods for capturing and storing carbon dioxide both as emissions and atmospheric concentrations, and the invention of low carbon energy supplies. Such an approach has the advantage of fostering economic growth in the developing countries, lifting hundreds of millions from abject poverty over the next 20 years.

Other than asserting that the Green Movement would not be possible without open societies and free markets I'm not sure anything could draw their protest more than arguing that we should rely on technology to solve our potential environmental problems. However, as noted above, this is the way to best foster economic growth in developing countries, and still maintain the ability to deal with ecological problems that are natural consequence of satisfying human demands. In short, the Earth needs to be fed before it can be green. (And please spare me any global warming talk, we're looking at single digits this week in Chicago. ;-)

Enter Frank Martin, to tell us of a way that technology is already helping with environmental concerns. And it didn't even require an international summit or treaty. Do you want cars to pollute half as much as they do now? Would you like to see the United States become half as dependent on foreign oil? Do as Frank says, buy whatever car you want and drive half as much:
How do you do that? Chances are, you already are. If you are reading this, you are using the infrastructure that has the best chance of lowering America's dependency on "Foreign oil".

Allow me to explain.

Back in the 1970's, you had to GO to work. It was the workplace that had the phones, the manuals. The primary method of communication between part of the company was a stack of manila envelopes, called "interoffice mail". Memos slipped into these envelopes and routed between departments represented the information flow of major companies. In the 1970's, you had no other choice but to go "someplace" to meet with "someone". In the 1970's you had no other choice than to live where your work was. Everyone you worked with was within arms reach of your work. If you had to meet with someone "far, far away" you HAD to travel to meet with them. Get in your car, drive to the airport, get on the jet, sit in a hotel, go to another office, say hello, talk for 2 hours, show a presentation, and then reverse the process. An entire "work week" of man hours and thousands of gallons of jet fuel, just so you could put a slide show presentation on the wall of someone else's office in a far away city.

...Today, you have a cellphone with you at all times. You are always connected, so much so that in the rare case where you are in the far outback and outside of a cell, it feels like you stepped into the middle ages. You have at least one computer in your home, with more software running your home accounts than even a large company could point to in the 1970's. In most cases, your company has their internal systems set up in such a way that information can be reached from any employee from any point on the globe. Woe to the field sales representative who cannot keep his pipeline up to date for the management team to make projections. We all live with the concept of "just-in-time" inventory systems, but to the world of the 1970's, it would have seemed like an impossibility (except for the visionaries who were proposing and creating them at the time)

Where once you had to go to an office to get work done, you very often find that most of the people you work with are no longer in that office, but spread out all over the globe. It was precisely because of the work to "computerize" business since the 1970's that the ability for a company to work in several time zones and countries became a reality. We've gone from the turn of the century concept of a "Company Town" to the 1950's ,"headquarters office" on to the 1970's "corporate campus". In the world of today, its considered a detriment to have your company working at one location as that wastes 16 hours of productivity in a 24 hour period. Companies around the world have gone to a "follow-the-sun" philosophy where workers are distributed around the globe, rather than clumped into one office.

...Change happens, not in big "central command planning" ways but in simple and small ways. If you were to work remote just two days a week, you would be amazed at how much work you will accomplish in those two days, but you will also be stunned at how much money, and gas, you will save. This isn't limited by just commuting, look at how much you buy via or that you used to have to go "somewhere" to get. Look at the use of to keep you from having to drive to get a movie. It all adds up! Look at how much you can do today without leaving your house compared to the 1970's and you can see what I mean.

In deference to Bob Brinker, I would much rather "the government" get involved by encouraging the expansion of broadband internet access to more remote areas of the United States. I would much rather "the government" help companies break their dependence on office cubicles and their need to fill them. If companies can send jobs overseas, then the ought to be able to accommodate your working across town. They get a happier employee, they don't need a big office building, and you are vastly more productive. You also get to drive whatever the hell you want; you just get to do it for fun rather than because you have to.

Change doesn't come from Washington D.C., it comes from you. This change is already underway; you just need to give it a little shove. This makes a whole lot more sense to me than making a whole industry make cars no one wants.

Of course not every job can be done remotely, but it's pretty self-evident that a lot more can than are. Even one day a week would reduce consumption by roughly 20% for that person. Ask yourself, what am I going to get done at the office that I couldn't get done at home with remote access? Why not some tax incentives for employers that allow employees to work from home even a few days a week. (Think of the potential day care savings) It's hard for me to see a downside.

This is just one example of technology saving the environment and I'm sure that most greens would find the thought of relying on corporations, advancement and markets for environmental solutions as horrifying as leaving the Mullahs of the Middle East in charge of the feminist movement. But it highlights the flaw that plagues much of environmentalist movement's thoughts on resources. Strictly speaking there are no natural resources. Yes, nature provides man with lots of stuff. Dirt, rocks, minerals, trees, crude oil, coal, etc. But that stuff amounts to little more than benign pieces of matter until they are combined with human intelligence and given a purpose. You see, the ultimate resource is human creativity, it is the common denominator element present in all 'non-renewable' resources. Fortunately for us, human ingenuity is the most renewable and plentiful resource of all. Still don't trust technology? Look at its track record. My grandparents were told to save whale oil for future generations, and thank god they saved it for me or else I wouldn't be able to power what the hell did they use whale oil for anyway? The point is that technoloy and markets help us cope with issues of scarcity. If a resource begins to dwindle, it's price goes up, and suddenly there is a profit incentive to create more efficient and cheaper alternatives. Despite hysterical predictions of the 70's that we would run out of many resources (and lose hudreds of millions of people to starvation) by the 90's we haven't. In fact, can you name one non-renewable resource that we as a human race have ever exhausted?

I didn't think so. In almost every measurable way - life expectancy, infant mortality rate, healthcare, income, standard of living, etc. - life is looking positively up, and there is no reason to think the trend won't continue. While optimism may not be as emotionally satisfying as declaring the rest of the world dangerously thoughtless and in need of environmental rescue, it certainly has a stronger track record.


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