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Beam-in-the-Eye Environmentalism

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Beam-in-the-Eye Environmentalism

States and localities enact symbolic green regulations while embracing land-use regimes that harm the environment. August 23, 2021
Politics and law

Recently, video-game computer company Alienware announced that several states had banned some of its products for consuming too much electricity. “This product cannot be shipped to the states of California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, or Washington due to power consumption regulations adopted by those states,” read a disclaimer posted on Alienware’s website under several computers it offered for sale. The environmental benefits of these regulations are questionable: a trade publication notes that the California regulations targeted consumption in low-power modes, but one of the computers has a “short-idle energy consumption of 66.29 watts,” similar to a single incandescent bulb. Compared with total residential electricity consumption, it’s hard to see such regulations having much effect.

Such regulations are of a piece with other measures of the environmentalist movement that prize symbolism and “raising awareness” over substance. Take, for example, plastic-straw bans, enacted by cities including Seattle and San Francisco. Plastic straws hardly feel environmentally friendly, but they are a minor contributor to environmental problems. The website Earth.org admits, “Despite the concerted efforts by corporations, the plastic straws ban has only made a minor difference in plastic waste production. National Geographic reveals that where 8 million tonnes of plastics flow into the ocean every year, plastic straws merely comprise 0.025% of the total.” Earth.org also quotes an organization that suggests that the obtrusiveness of plastic straw bans is largely the point: “Lonely Whale, an organization that led the straw ban movement in the USA, proposed an interesting idea towards this question. They expressed that ‘Our straw campaign is not really about straws. It’s about pointing out how prevalent single-use plastics are in our lives, putting up a mirror to hold us accountable. We’ve all been asleep at the wheel.’”

But the same state and local governments that pass such pettifogging environmental regulations also uphold a set of egregiously anti-environmental land-use laws whose effects dramatically outweigh even the most stringent regulations of computers and plastic straws.

The most obvious example: zoning codes that many cities have adopted in the last few decades have practically forbidden urban redevelopment. California offers perhaps the best-studied example. According to an analysis of census data on characteristics of America’s housing stock by economist Issi Romem, development in California’s largest metropolitan area, Los Angeles, exemplifies a now-nationwide pattern of “pockets of dense construction in a dormant suburban exterior” in which most new housing construction takes the form of dense building in a few central areas (though not nearly enough to satisfy regional housing demands) and suburban expansion in remote areas such as the Mojave Desert and San Bernardino County. Such a pattern emerged in the 1980s; before then, the Los Angeles metropolitan area saw widespread low-intensity redevelopment of already-developed areas, including near the coasts, as was typical of development around the nation.

Ironically, the motivation for many of these laws—as Jake Anbinder, a historian of American housing policy, has written—was largely environmentalist. Theories such as Paul Ehrlich’s warning of a “population bomb” convinced environmentalists in the 1970s of a pressing need to limit population growth. In environmentalist strongholds such as California, such fears directly motivated support for downzoning in established cities—San Francisco passed a sweeping version in 1978—as well as regional development plans such as the San Francisco region’s Plan Bay Area that sharply limited suburban expansion, even in near-central areas such as Marin County, and preserved most undeveloped land as open space.

Such measures may have preserved an eco-friendly aesthetic, but they had severe environmental costs. First, they redirected growth to far-flung areas where residents face much longer commutes, almost all in private cars. (Even San Francisco’s Department of City Planning warned, in 1978, that that year’s downzoning could have such a consequence.) California and Hawaii, for example—two states that have banned Alienware sales—also saw some of the largest increases from 2010 to 2015 in “super-commuters” with trips of 90 minutes or more each way. (California has the fourth-largest share of super-commuters in the nation.) Both California and Hawaii have extremely strict land-use laws, some with ostensibly environmentalist justifications, such as “urban growth boundaries” that ban development on rings of land closely circumscribing major metropolitan areas—with the result being that low-income workers must travel long distances from sprawling developments outside the urban-growth boundary. This is especially galling in California, where sprawl in the Central Valley is consuming some of the world’s most valuable farmland to keep much less useful land near San Francisco undeveloped.

The recent heat wave and ongoing wildfires in the West Coast expose another risk of this kind of development. The heat wave produced no end of striking temperature maps showing, for example, that coastal areas of Southern California remained comfortable, with readings in the seventies and eighties, even as temperatures in inland exurbs rose well above 100. Land-use policies that preserve coastal areas as wealthy enclaves while forcing new development into exurbs have obvious consequences not merely for human health but also for the environment, considering the energy required to keep single-family homes cool. In areas such as the San Francisco Bay Area, restrictions on urban redevelopment are also promoting suburban sprawl in wildfire zones.

Complaints about environmental regulations that focus on trivial consumer choices have been commonplace for decades. But they coexist with a far more egregious set of land-use policies that do immense harm to the environment—not to mention the economy and public health—to maintain a veneer of bucolic, low-density living for a fortunate few. Members of the political class in California and other states who want to be environmentally friendly should consider the beams in their own eyes before complaining about the motes in their fellow citizens’.

Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

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