Note: I wrote this in 2014 and so some of the reasoning is probably sloppy, but the factual claims are probably legit.

Summary: I investigated a variety of possible pro-environment actions, and concluded that none of them were worth my time. I don’t think that any pro-environmental actions are as time/money efficient as giving to the best climate change charities, and I don’t think that those climate change charities are anywhere near the best human-oriented charities we currently have available as donation targets. I briefly consider non-direct effects of pro-environmental actions.

People often tell me I should care about the environment, and take steps to protect it. I’m on board with that in principle. However, before I spent a few hours researching this, I had no idea of how to judge how much environmental damage is caused by different things I’m doing, and which supposedly environmentally friendly measures I should bother taking.

For example, I’m aware that all the following things are costly to the environment:

  • using water
  • using electricity
  • driving too much
  • purchasing plane tickets
  • not recycling glass
  • using lots of paper
  • throwing batteries into landfill
  • eating beef (this one’s irrelevant to me because I’m vegan, but I know some people don’t eat beef for this reason)
  • choosing not to donate to Cool Earth, which Katja Grace thinks is the most cost effective way to reduce carbon emissions, at about $1.50 per tonne of CO2.

But before I started researching this article, I had no idea how to weigh between these.

Central to my thoughts here is the idea that we should try to use our time and effort in the most effective ways possible. I’m doing useful and fun things with my time, and I need to see some evidence for effectiveness of environmental choices before I can be convinced to displace my current behaviors. I don’t want to take actions which aren’t valuable enough to justify my time usage.

In particular, lots of these environmental concerns seem to just be normal economic issues. I’ll talk about water consumption a bit more later, but it seems to me like a great example of an environmental issues which shouldn’t really be considered as such. Water is a resource that I can choose to consume. I don’t see any reasons why there would be large costs from my water consumption which don’t factor into the price of water. I am totally on board with saving money by purchasing more efficient showers, but that seems like a primarily practical matter rather than a moral one.

To me, the obvious comparison for enviromnentalism is veganism. When I choose not to eat a meal with 200g of chicken, I prevent (in expectation) about four days of suffering for a chicken in a factory farm. I don’t get nearly enough pleasure out of eating that chicken to justify four days of confinement in a factory farm. It is very easy for me to make this calculation and become vegan.

But I have very little idea how to do a similar analysis for environmental issues. There are two main problems with trying to make that analysis.

Firstly, the causal relationship between my actions and environmental outcomes is a lot more subtle. To quote Katja, “If you stop an acre of forest being cut in one place, how much will be cut in another place? If you reduce your own emissions, will others in your country just be permitted to emit more later on?”

Second, I don’t know which environmental issues I actually care about, or how much I should care about them. Anthropogenic global warming seems bad enough for humanity that I think it’s probably worth reducing on the margin. However, I’m less sure about many other environmentalist issues.

I am not in general in favor of preserving ecosystems, because I’m worried about wild animal suffering, and conservation is not an obvious way of improving wild animal lives. This means that I am unsure how to feel about deforestation, for example.

Evaluations of particular issues

Conserving water

Water usage is a great example. Australians hear a lot about our droughts, and how we should put in effort to conserve water. However, I’m not actually sure why I should care at all about my water consumption. Worries about droughts are often phrased in terms of people going thirsty, but as Jeff Kaufman points out, this doesn’t really make sense. In Australia, water costs consumers about $1 per tonne. Desalinization costs about $2.50 per tonne. If we need to start getting water via desalinization plants, the increase in prices will only really be relevant to producers of extremely water intensive crops, and I see no compelling reason to care much about causing them a few cents of inconvenience with profligate water usage.

Maybe getting water to me requires enormous amounts of energy, and that has negative externalities because of climate change? Australian water requires about 0.7 kWh/kL to produce and pump to consumers. As we’ll see in the next section, I don’t think that this electricity consumption is enough of a problem to worry about.

Reducing CO2 emissions

Any measure which proposes to reduce my impact on climate change is going to need to be more effective than donating to Cool Earth, for $1.50 per tonne of CO2 prevented. Australians produce 16.9 tonnes of C02 per capita per year. (A plane trip to San Francisco creates about 2 tonnes of CO2, so maybe I’m more culpable than average?) Katja’s research used the exchange rate of around 1600 tonnes of CO2 = 1 DALY averted. With that DALY figure, she thinks that marginal climate change reduction is not the most effective intervention for improving human life.

This immediately makes me extremely skeptical of the potential for me to make meaningful difference through personal action on climate change. If it took me an hour a year to reduce my CO2 emissions literally all the way to zero, that would not be worth my time: it would cost $25 to get Cool Earth to create the same effect, and I value my time at more than $25 per hour.

Also, I suspect that the externalities of electricity consumption are tiny compared to the selfish interest of reducing power bills. Consumer electricity costs about $0.40 per kWh. CO2 emissions from coal power plants are about 1kg per kWh (this varies wildly), which is about a millionth of a DALY. To put it another way, if I want to donate enough to Cool Earth to offset all of my personal electricity usage, I only need to give a dollar for every $300 I spend on power bills. That’s small enough to be negligible.

It’s probably nice to have that number for various other CO2 emitting activities we might be tempted by. Petrol creates about 2.6kg of CO2 per liter used. (I was initially confused by that apparently conservation-of-energy-denying figure: it includes CO2 emitted in the production of the petrol.) Petrol costs about $1.50 per liter here in Canberra, so about 1.73 kg C02/$. So again, the ratio of personal cost to externality is about 1:500. Plane flights are similar: that 2 tonne plane ride to San Francisco cost me about $1200, so the ratio is 1:400.

Recycling

When we recycle an aluminium can, that means that we don’t need to smelt enough aluminium to make a new one. A used aluminium can is worth about 3 cents. That price is low enough that there can’t be that much implied energy usage in the can. Aluminium is very energy intensive to create, but cans are very light. When you choose to recycle your can, it’s basically causing something less than three cents of economic stimulus, which will result in maybe a hundred less grams of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Aluminium is the most energy intensive thing which we are asked to recycle. I suspect everything else is worth less. So recycling is fine if you’re into it, but probably not very valuable for the world.

Non-direct effects

Jeff Kaufman and others have pointed out that given that a $100 donation to The Humane League plausibly leads to much more than one person being vegetarian for a year, if you’d pay $100 for access to meat for a year, then you’re better off giving the $100 to the vegan outreach organization every year and eating meat to your heart’s content. This is one of the few utilitarian calculations which actually makes me feel icky. I can really easily generate a whole bunch of objections to his argument, about why my veganism is has more effects beyond just the direct ones:

  • I can convince others to be vegan. I probably deserve credit for maybe five vegans in the world, though it’s hard to know how long they’ll last.
  • Eating animals encourages a culture which believes that eating animals, and more generally exploiting them, is morally acceptable.

I can try to translate those reasons across to get reasons why looking environmentalist is indirectly useful.

Other people might be convinced to care more about their power consumption, and I might have a multiplier on my impact that way. Maybe. But the effect of reducing personal power consumption is so trivial anyway compared to the effect of promoting frugality that I suspect we’re better off doing the latter. People are pretty enthusiastic about having more money.

Showing your caring for the environment will promote other people to care about the environment. Yeah, but that isn’t very useful, and I don’t know if I support environmentalism in general, because of its usual enthusiasm for the suffering of wild animals.

If you carefully avoid wasting power, you’ll look like a good person, which helps you better influence others. This is a reasonably good point; it’s probably worth conserving water around others if you think they’ll like you more as a result. But most of my power/water/recycling usage occurs on my own.

I don’t think any of those are particularly strong arguments.

Unusually good options

I think it’s worth noting that both Cool Earth and Givewell’s top charities represent unusually good value propositions. The only reason that we can improve lives so cheaply at the moment is that not many people are actively looking for the cheapest opportunities to help people anywhere in the world. If the governments of the world took climate change or global health seriously, we’d quicky catch all the low hanging fruit, and it would be much more expensive to help others.

Intervention Cost per DALY averted
Cool Earth $2400
SCI $300
Typical western health care $25000
Typical western preventative health care interventions $3000

And obviously, I’m far happier to spend public money than my own on relatively inefficient projects like reducing CO2 emissions. So I’m still democratically enthusiastic about climate change reduction.

Conclusions

I am not aware of any pro-environment action I can take which is worth my time. If you pay a little bit of attention to frugality, you’re already doing as much for the environment as I think it is sensible to do.

If I were an environmentalist, I would try to reduce consumption, by promoting frugality or ideally reducing incomes. (Interesting side question: what’s the relationship between income inequality and consumption/environmental damage in a society?) I’d tell my friends to read Mr Money Moustache and save more of their money.