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Department Of Sloppy Thinking:
“Save a Tree” Environmentalism Doesn’t Make Much Sense

There are a lot of problems in the country and the world. We tend to focus on the proximate cause of these problems such as dysfunction in Washington. Yet, we would say that to a surprising extent our problems are caused or exacerbated by a facile way of thinking that makes many people believe things that may not be so.

This came to mind a little while ago as we were running through McCarran Airport in Las Vegas on our way to present the Keynote for the Annual Meeting of Agribusiness and Produce Marketing Scholars.

The airport restrooms have signs announcing that the airport is going green, and part of this campaign is an effort to encourage people to use electronic hot air hand dryers as opposed to paper towels. The restrooms are filled with signs urging people to do this on the grounds that this will “save a tree” — and, after all, who could be opposed to that?

One question, of course, is whether saving a tree is actually sufficient reason to do this. We would need to measure the benefits of saving a tree versus the costs — social, economic, environmental, etc. — of producing electricity to power these hand dryers.

One also supposes there may well be a “cost” on the general populous in that the electric hand dryers may do a worse job at hand-drying. So it may take more time to dry one’s hands with hot air or there may be a wait as the hand-drying machines only do one set of hands at a time whereas many people can simultaneously dry their hands after quickly pulling a paper towel from a dispenser.

The very fact that they have to make an appeal on environmental grounds implies that people typically find paper towels more effective at hand-drying. Yet, even if we put all this aside and simply focus on the claim – that utilizing electric hand dryers rather than paper towels will save a tree — it is easy to see that, as the song says, it ain’t necessarily so.

In the literal sense, sure, paper comes from trees, so if we don’t use paper, we don’t chop down a tree. But surely the relevant question is whether there will be more or fewer trees in the world if we don’t use paper towels. And this question does not necessarily get answered in a way in line with “save a tree” sloganeering.

After all, if nobody bought apples, would there be more or fewer apple trees in the world? Since nobody would have a reason to plant or cultivate them, it is highly likely there would be fewer.

Equally, paper companies don’t send people out with axes to find some random trees. These companies plant and tend to billions of trees. As long as there is a business of planting trees, harvesting them and selling the products from the trees, they will keep planting and tending.

The day we all stop using paper products, these companies will have no business and so will stop planting and tending trees. Land that is currently used for forests will be sold for other uses that provide a better economic return.

We have seen this dynamic in other situations. For example, it is now accepted that if we want to preserve an animal population in a specific region, it is essential to make sure that the animals produce an income for the local population — this can be through tourism, controlled hunting, etc. The point is that if the population can make a living by having animals around, they will have an incentive to keep the animal population vibrant. If you just tell poor people to protect the animals, they will see them as hindrances, destroying crops and occupying land that could support the local people.

It is easy to think that what the airport puts in signage in its restrooms doesn’t really matter, but when a public entity is careless with the truth, it encourages a kind of mindset in which sloganeering replaces thinking. The outcome of that just can’t be very good.

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