It's easy not being green

The watermelons (green outside, pink inside) on the left continue to FAIL to get a handle on the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Object Lesson #1: The commissioners of Spokane County in Washington State figured it would be a good and green thing to reduce water pollution by getting phosphates out of the district’s waste water. So last July, they enacted the nation’s strictest ban on dishwasher detergent made with phosphates. The ban will be expanded statewide in 2010, and similar laws will take effect in several other states at the same time.

One small problem – eco-friendly dishwasher soaps just don’t get the job done. Spokane residents were less than thrilled to open their dishwashers after a full cycle to see their dishes still covered with food and grease. They were even less thrilled to have to take them out of the machine and rewash them by hand.

So people who like their dishes to be actually clean after machine-washing them discovered a simple end run around against the ill-conceived mandate. They just smuggle boxes of Cascade and Electrasol into the county from across the state line in nearby Idaho.

Phosphates are great at breaking down grease and removing encrusted chunks of food from dishes, pots and pans. Unfortunately, they have the disadvantage of being difficult to remove in waste water treatment plants. If the chemicals are released into rivers and lakes, they act as fertilizer for algae, making it grow and depriving the water of oxygen that fish need in order to survive.

Spokane County Commissioners chose to ignore recent advances in waste water treatment technology which significantly reduce phosphates. Rather than employ real environmental engineering, they took the social engineering approach and tried to change the behavior of their constituents to solve a problem. The constituents found the alternatives to the products they had relied upon to be ineffective, so they easily gamed the system.

What will the commissioners learn from this object lesson? Will they look at finding a better way to reduce phosphates at county water treatment plants? Not likely. They will probably just make the ban more restrictive. Currently, only the sale of phosphate dishwater detergents is illegal, not the possession of it. We don’t need a crystal ball to see where the good commissioners will be going. People will continue to smuggle in their phosphate detergents. The only difference is that they will be branded as criminals for doing so. Then the next step for the local lawmakers will be to increase the penalties for breaking the law, and when that doesn’t work, what will be next? Random stops of cars on the highway to be searched by officers with soap-sniffing dogs?

Object Lesson #2: Greenies have long been pushing the adoption of compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs and urging that the familiar incandescent bulbs be outlawed.

There are several problems with this, and they aren’t small ones. True, the CFLs are more energy-efficient than the incandescent variety. But many people don’t like the bluish-green light they provide. If the fluorescent tubes at the office bother your eyes, changes are you won’t like their smaller cousins at home. Also, CFLs, compared to incandescents, are slower to warm up, don’t work as well with dimmer switches, and often fail to meet advertised bulb life specifications when used inside enclosed fixtures due to the heat they generate. And should a CFL break, you have to clean up the mess with special care, because the mercury contained in compact fluorescents is anything but eco-friendly.

Again, there is an alternative which the watermelons largely ignored, so eager were they to force CFLs on the rest of us. Light bulbs which use LED (Light-Emitting Diode) technology have a lifespan of 60,000 hours, vs. the CFL’s (theoretical) 10,000 hours and the incandescent bulb’s 1,500 hours. LED bulbs are generally not as bright as an incandescent bulb, but the difference is only a slight one. LED bulbs also tend to have a narrower, more directional field of light than do incandescents. LED bulbs are most useful when they have been aimed right at whatever it is you want to illuminate. Traditional floor and table lamps fitted with LEDs tend to light the ceiling and whatever the lamp is placed upon. But if your’re an avid reader, you probably already have at least one good reading lamp which directs the light at your pages, so no problem.

In the greenies’ defense, LED bulb technology wasn’t yet ready for prime time back in the days when they first started pushing for CFLs. But CFLs, at least when manufactured to have a price point competitive with incandescents, haven’t proved themselves to be quite ready, either. And as good as LED bulbs are, new light bulb technologies (nanocrystal-coated LEDs and plasma light bulbs) are even better.

Nevertheless, the point is that in searching for a solution to a perceived problem, our green friends are always too eager to seize upon the first alternative which presents itself rather than wait just a bit to see if there’s an even better solution. And in every case, they do so because it feels good. They don’t logically and empirically evaluate all the solutions. This would simply be their problem rather than ours were they not so determined to force us to adopt their half-baked ideas. It’s social engineering run amok and mandated in a dictatorial manner. Unfortunately, the Law of Unintentional Consequences has too long a built-in delay time to prove the folly of their actions until considerable time and energy has been spent on less than ideal solutions. That’s the beauty of conservatism. Change is only adopted when it proves to make worthwhile contributions to the quality of life, never for its own sake.

– JP

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