Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Green Thumb on an Invisible Hand: Can Markets Improve the Environment?

Many think of the market as a mighty, erratic beast capable of transporting continents upon its back when domesticated by the adroit hands of statesmen but if left untamed would raze the defenseless into microscopic particles. This conception of networks of voluntary exchange is a dire mistake on a host of issues none more considerable than the environment. Too much trust is yielded to regulation and oversight while industries holding much ecological promise such as Solid Waste Disposal, Agribusiness and Nuclear Power fall victim to misinformed zealots who end up undermining their cause.

landfillThe last place one expects to discover eco-centered innovation are smelly eyesores yet within the past thirty years dumps have handily outpaced expectations. Because these rolling hills of refuse are such easy targets a piece of legislation entitled the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was passed by Congress in 1976 regulating waste materials. Later tighter restrictions on landfills were added through Subtitle D in 1991. After the passage of Subtitle D a measurable decline in Solid Waste Management facilities lead to more privatization and larger sites. By conventional wisdom this paradigm shift should have resulted in catastrophe. What actually occurred was remarkable.

Despite a steady flow of solid waste, landfill capacity actually increased with time. Between 1986-1991 13 states reported their dumps contained under 5 years of capacity. Presently, no states report landfills below 5 years of capacity, and the numbers for national facilities are even more heartening. These sites retained 11 years of capacity in the late-'80s, jumped to 14 years through the mid-'90s and currently maintain around 16 years of capacity. (source) Considering the rate of waste in the U.S. remains relatively constant per capita but swells in relation to population, these statistics become quite astounding. Even though more garbage enter landfills the lifespan of these sites increases. Incineration, improved recycling rates and inter-state capacity sharing assist in controlling landfill volume nationwide. (source)

Even the deleterious consequences of dumps have either been tapered or commuted. The strategic placement of landfills away from densely populated residential areas and waterways largely mitigates ground water contamination. Porous, subterranean fabrics called geotextiles filter hazardous pollutants inhibiting dangerous leakage. Methane gas emissions from decomposing trash can now be harnessed as an energy source. Carpet manufacturer, Interface Inc., decreased natural gas consumption by 20% since implementing this new technique in 2003. (source) Breakthroughs keep refining these technologies year after year ensuring improved safety and performance.

agribusinessFurther up the chain of production Agribusiness continually boasts more efficient ways of cultivating crops with clever weather-resistant features. How any conscious, purportedly compassionate person could daunt this agricultural explosion falls beyond censure. The genetic strides engineered by private companies allow third world farmers greater growing flexibility and output, and the simple fact is because of these graciously unnatural modifications more food is generated globally with less land than ever before. Taking the numbers for the U.S. alone, corn harvests have increased by an additional 36%, soybeans by 12% and cotton by 31% thanks to biotechnology. (source) Farmers now use wireless equipment to measure how much water and fertilizer crops require to reduce waste and lower costs. Researchers augmented the plants themselves so they recover more quickly during droughts and floods -- an answered prayer to poor, Asiatic nations; require less tilling decreasing the overall amount of erosion and runoff; rely on 70% less water with equal or greater yields and repel pests diminishing the application of pesticides. Genetically modified seeds currently inaccessible to farmers are projected to be brought to market as soon as 2012.

Strictly "organic" farmers experience none of these benefits and leave behind a larger environmental footprint than Agribusiness. Because local farms deliver to a legion of individual retailers without a primary distribution center or encourage customers to pick-up their goods directly more fossil fuel gets dumped into the atmosphere while Agribusiness ships in bulk to fewer locations and imports their product from all over the world from regions specifically chosen to maximize efficiency for any given commodity. (source) The result is cheaper prices, better quality and less greenhouse gasses.

smiley-nuclearAs demonized as Agribusiness and genetically modified foods, or "Frankenfoods," are at present no other industry proves to be a scarier boogieman for nebbish environmentalists than Nuclear Power. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl cast long shadows over the legacy of this safe, clean wonder-fuel. To set the record straight, no one died at Three Mile Island and, although tragic, the 56 dead at Chernobyl is dwarfed by the countless dead due to ash coughed up by coal factories annually not to mention the human cost of resource wars launched in the name of oil. When the death tolls are placed side by side the hysteria orbiting Nuclear Power seems rather nitwitted.

Economically, Nuclear Power Plants make sense. They receive fewer subsidies than coal, oil, solar or wind power even though coal and oil are far bigger polluters, and by the most recent estimates solar and wind power at their peak could only satisfy 20% of demand while Nuclear Power could assure 90% of all energy needs. Nuclear power also outperforms the status quo. For instance, a single enriched uranium pellet equals "17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal [and] 149 gallons of oil." (source) Despite a deficit in funding, Nuclear Plants cover the total cost of externalities and the decommissioning of outdated facilities. (source) No other clean power source produces more for less.

But can it be labeled clean or safe? When measuring the output of hazardous material nuclear power barely charts next to coal. The American coal industry unleashes more physical waste every few hours than Nuclear Power's entire history. This distressing quantity factors into the question of radioactivity. Not many people realize coal ash is radioactive although Uranium has greater intensity the disparity in the waste ratio between coal and nuclear power crowns coal ash the more worrisome environmental threat. Because of the diminutive amount of waste Nuclear Plants leave behind it can be altered into a watertight material, locked into steel-reinforced containers and buried well away from any underground water sources. (source)

As for the matter of safety, Chernobyl-style facilities have long since been decomissioned. In newer models, ceramic pellets encase pieces of uranium stored inside zirconium alloy tubes forming rods confined behind 30-centimeter thick walls which in turn are housed within a 1-meter thick barrier. During the burning process safety features slow efficiency if the water becomes too warm and several models of power plants depend upon physical forces such as gravity to halt the process altogether instead of mechanized components, and system redundancies double check the internal operations. (source) To further illustrate the safety of Nuclear Power Plants, during the Cold War neither the United States nor the Soviet Union aimed warheads at these complexes because the damage would have been negligible at best.

The collapse of Soviet Russia left an ecological moonscape as public proprietorship typically disintegrates into ruin. By contrast, thousands of largely private, collaborative hands shed elbow grease to manufacture sustainable technology inconceivable to any dark breed of central planner. The alacrity, plasticity and innovatory brawn behind markets can be overwhelming but this stupefying creature functions best when left unyoked.

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