Wednesday, June 02, 2010


In the environmental ethics class, we talk a lot about how to induce people to change their current behaviors to ones that are arguably more environmentally sustainable, to drive less, eat food that’s sourced locally, buy less disposable junk made out of and packaged in plastic, and so on. Often, the challenge of doing so is seen as a great big collective action problem, a state of affairs where everyone knows that everyone would do better if everyone cooperated on sustainable solutions, but everyone also realizes that the best thing to do, from a self-interested standpoint, is get everyone else to cooperate, then reap the benefits by not cooperating oneself.

Another way of putting it is that it’s what Garrett Hardin referred to as a “commons problem,” one in which we share a common resource—the earth, in this case—and since there’s really no penalty for abusing it, we will. Hardin himself argues for mutual coercion, mutually agreed-upon as the solution to such problems—taxes and fines and the like—but it seems clear that folks tend to be much more effectively motivated by benefits than costs, so, in class, we’re constantly wondering about how to make it better for people to make better choices rather than punishing them for making worse ones.

All of which is to remind me that the reason I never drive to work, but instead only bike and bus, is only indirectly related to my desire to make choices that arguably reduce my carbon footprint. More to the point is that I prefer my transportation options and would be hard-pressed to change solely on the grounds that some other mode was more sustainable.

After all, I never have to sit in traffic, I get some exercise everyday in spite of myself, I enjoy a little adventure as I pedal, and on days like today, in spite of the headwind, I get to ride a bike—for which I need no incentive


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