Paul Tullis's Grim Tidings

Bitter musings on politics and policy

Global warming and the free rider problem: does individual conservation matter?

with 2 comments

Last weekend I went to the new home of some friends of mine, in Beverly Hills. The couple has found tremendous financial success–he’s in the film industry, she is a doctor–and their recently-renovated house is a thing to behold. I’ve been in the homes of rock stars and movie stars (OK, one rock star and maybe a couple movie stars) and this place made those places look like split-level ranch houses on a cul-de-sac (no offense intended to those living in split-level ranch houses on cul-de-sacs; it’s just a comparison).

The place has at least four bedrooms, an enormous study, a separate playroom for the kids, a formal dining room, a kitchen the size of a couple of apartments I’ve lived in, his and her walk-in closets, something called a “gallery” the purpose of which was not at all clear to me–all on half an acre (a really big lot for this part of Beverly Hills) with a grassy lawn and a pool. Fabulously decorated, I might add.

I’d visited them at home before and we’d discussed the politics and economics of global warming before, so it was no surprise to me to find the air conditioning running in all 7,600 square feet on a pleasantly cool evening, two giant refrigerators plus two more hotel-size ones, lights on in empty rooms, at least six (six!) enormous flat-screen TV’s, and other uses of energy that I would regard as wasteful–in addition to an Escalade in the driveway. (And not the hybrid model, either.)

Although kidding each other about our political proclivities is part of the relationship the husband and I mutually enjoy, I resisted making any comment about all this (at least, as far as I recall–I did have a couple of drinks), but it did get me thinking:

Here I am, trying my best to reduce my carbon footprint and encouraging and trying to help others to act similarly. Yet my effort to conserve is almost certainly counterbalanced by my friends’ way-above-average use of energy and corresponding emissions.

This introduces what is known in the world of economics as the “free rider problem.” The term comes from the frequently-cited example of someone who uses the subway without paying, and it refers to the use of a public resource over and above the user’s fair share, leading to market failure or inefficiency.

Now, my friend, generally a conservative on economic matters and liberal-libertarian on social issues, would probably say that as long as his family earns enough to pay for it, they should be able to use this resource as much as they like. I hate to think what his power bill is, and given the size of the lawn and swimming pool I’d bet they’re paying way more per-gallon than most people, under Los Angeles’ current water restrictions, for much of their water use. But certainly they can afford to use enough energy each month to light and cool LAX. My friend would also point out that what he does for a living creates wealth for others–employing people and giving them health insurance etc. etc., both directly and indirectly–as well as helps give people a nice evening out at the movies, which has its own value. All of that is true.

But the free rider problem can also work the other way, as it does in this case: Excessive use of a public resource–in this case the fossil fuels which produce the greenhouse gasses which erodes the stable climate necessary for the sustainability of agriculture, public health, and other benefits of the global climate remaining close to what it’s been since the birth of civilization–is a burden borne by all the public, even though only a portion of the public is paying for it or even party to the decision to use it excessively. (This is also why I think drivers of gas-guzzlers should pay double or triple the sales tax and annual registration fees of average cars or low-emissions vehicles.)

The free rider problem is a “problem” because there isn’t jack-shit any of us can do about it. We can charge my friends up the wazoo for their energy use, and maybe they’ll be encouraged to use less of it (or maybe not). We can exhort them to change in light of the dangers of climate change (hasn’t worked so far). The argument could be made that society would be justified in allowing the utility company to just cut them off past a certain threshhold each month, but this is unlikely to survive a court challenge (to say nothing of the court of public opinion).

What’s more, the free rider problem encourages similar abuse of public resources: If people see some members of society using more than their fare share, and sometimes they, too, like to run the A/C all the time and drive luxury vehicles the size of small planets, people are going to think, Why the hell shouldn’t I, if other people are doing it? What’s the point of conserving if nobody else is? Thus ramping up the use of the public resource further, and leading to a positive feedback loop.

Now, I’m not going to change because I couldn’t handle the guilt of contributing a great deal to what I regard as a problem of this magnitude. This is why I conserve where I can, pay extra for renewable power, and purchase offsets for nearly all my emissions as best as I can calculate them.

But not everybody thinks the way I do, so this gets me feeling rather fatalistic. As long as there are people out there like my friends, god bless them, and as long as there is such a thing as human nature, and–hell, free rider problem aside–as long as 25-to-30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions is caused by deforestation, most of it in far-off, impossible-to-police areas, does it matter what kind of shampoo I use?

What do you think?

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Written by ptullis

June 30, 2009 at 10:28 pm

2 Responses

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  1. You know the answer. You can only be responsible for yourself. It’ll add up properly in the end. I think it’ll probably be like smoking — first everyone started to say ICK! out loud, then workplaces and restaurants set aside smoke-free areas and rather soon after reversed and set aside smoking areas … on and on until finally it just wasn’t cool to smoke anywhere. Same thing will happen to our “addictions” to the overuse of energy and clean water … Soon everyone will be as frugal as they should. About your friends, they’ll come around when it’s cool enough to do so … We gotta work on the “cool” …


    July 1, 2009 at 2:02 am

  2. I have often pondered this myself, but like you, can’t live with the guilt of doing otherwise. I mock myself when I pull a plastic bag out of the trash or put a paper towel roll in the recycle bin. But what can I do?

    Maybe the larger question is how to create a society that understands consequences and takes personal responsibility.


    July 6, 2009 at 2:36 pm

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