Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How not to save the world

An article entitled 5 Ways People Are Trying to Save the World (That Don't Work) has been getting a lot of attention on Digg, so I thought I'd look closely at it.

The article makes some pretty strong claims, such as:
  1. Organic food may actually hurt the planet more than non-organic food,
  2. Vaccines do not cause autism,
  3. We don't need to recycle,
  4. Bacterial soap is a waste of time, and
  5. Carbon offsets don't solve the problem.
The article belongs to angrily worded backwards counted "x ways to do y" category, which I can't stand (the author, Son Tran, seems to only write such pieces). It is also featured on www.cracked.com, which is not known for journalistic excellence. The claims do seem interesting, so its worth a short discussion.

First, I completely agree with points 2, 4 and 5. Scientists, and now the courts, agree that there is no evidence that the scare over vaccines is warranted; worrying about bacteria is silly, and does degrade our immune systems (I almost never get sick as an adult, in part, I am sure, because I was always sick as a kid); and there is no evidence that carbon offsets do much more than make you feel better, without actually helping the environment.

I do though strongly disagree with points 1 and 3.

It is true that there is little to no evidence organic is healthier for you, though we don't know much about the long-run effects of hormones in our food (a good overview of our state of knowledge on the subject can be found here).

It is not true though that organic is worse for the environment. Tran notes that "Because it is much less efficient, there is actually a shortage of organic food available. This leads to people having the food shipped in from much further away. We're no scientists, but we think that doing things like shipping organic milk 900 miles over the highway in a truck belching diesel fumes is probably canceling out any environmental benefits you might have gained from going organic." He is correct, he is no scientist, and the effect of shipping is much, much smaller than he thinks (around 11% of the total environmental impact of a food product). Organic also has a significantly reduced impact on soil erosion and water poisoning due to there being no artificial pesticides and fertilizers.

The argument against recycling is actually slightly more reasonable. Tran basically gets all of his arguments from a NYT article from 1996, but the numbers are basically right: we can find the space needed for landfills.

But does that make recycling useless? Just because we have been replacing trees cut down so far, and we have the room for landfills, does that mean we don't need to worry about waste?

No, it doesn't. Landfills leak, causing serious problems for groundwater. They also produce greenhouse gases due to fermentation of trash. And just because you have replaced a tree used for making paper does not mean that you have had no impact on the forest.

In general, we should recycle when it makes sense. We don't need to recycle everything, but we probably shouldn't recycle nothing.

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