Green vs Cheap

I like to think of myself as a pretty environmentally-conscious person. I recycle whenever I can, I turn off lights, I walk instead of driving. But most people can do that, and do without really thinking about it.

As “green” is increasingly becoming the buzz word of today, I think everyone is becoming a little more aware of their “carbon footprint.” In doing so, I’ve found that I do more than I sometimes realize. I drink only water, in an aluminum bottle. I bring a salad to work everyday in a plastic container, and I reuse my fork. I don’t eat meat. I take the train into the city instead of driving. I avoid using air conditioning when its cooler than 90 degrees.

But even as I start to feel proud of myself and start to “feel so green” (as I often say of my lunches), I have to be honest about my motives. As much as I don’t want to destroy the environment, I’m not going out of my way here; in fact, most of my “green” habits come from selfish motives. The aluminum water bottle is just the right size and keeps water cold. By reusing my containers, I never have to worry about running out. I walk to get in some extra exercise. I don’t like meat. I do like the feel of the breeze while driving. The train because is faster than dealing with traffic. Turning off lights and recycling take no effort at all. I do all of these things because they work for me, and almost all save me money – it’s an added bonus that they work for the environment, too.

So there’s an important lesson for governments to learn as countries around the world enter a race to be green, to find reusable sources of energy, to reduce pollution, to create eco-friendly jobs, to develop conscious citizens: most people aren’t going to spend extra money or go out of their way for the environment. Just as businesses won’t reduce emissions as long as they’re profitable, everyone is looking out for their immediate circumstances and is going to do what’s best for them. It seems selfish, but it’s true, especially when so many are strapped for cash. So if more people are using Tupperware, it’s likely not to prevent waste – it’s to prevent needing to buy paper bags every month.

The point here is that the only way for governments to bring about real change in environmental policy, business practices and people’s habits is to make it profitable and cheaper to be green. Subsidizing green products and companies would work; placing taxes on polluting and excessive packaging would also work. The trouble is, those options require money, which we don’t seem to have a lot of. And if people won’t spend to protect the environment, they probably won’t want to go further in debt for it.

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