As I was sitting in the sky on my way to Thailand, I had to watch several times the same commercial for Air Canada. It was boasting about their achievement in improving ‘sustainability’. They shed some weight from their airplanes to improve fuel efficiency by 30%. They did it for the planet.
If they bragged about it in their annual shareholder meeting, I would understand. 30% reduction in fuel consumption for an airline is a significant achievement, meaning either increased profitability or greater competitiveness through lower fares.
But sustainability? Flying to the land of cheap self-indulgence? Where nobody really had to go to do a variety of things they did not really have to do?
This was beyond ironic. Flying people to places where they do not need to be using non-renewable resources is pretty much the definition of wasteful unsustainability.
The utter idiocy of this Air-Canada commercial kept me questioning everything I encountered.
Thailand is the land where people come for no other reason than some sort of self-gratification, to enjoy themselves in whatever their particular way of enjoyment may be. Everything is cheaper, you can get a decent hotel room for 30-40 dollars, a dinner for less than $10 or less than $5 if you are willing to eat like most people there – on the street. You can get a massage or a facial for a quarter of what you would pay in the developed world. How can we square this affordable luxury with the notion of sustainability?
All of this also means an effect on the Thai. Every Thai foot massage will take a Thai masseuse one step closer to replacing their unsustainable electric fan with an even more unsustainable air conditioner, or a scooter with a car.
How can we square development with sustainability? Where do we draw the lines? One hundred years ago the rich in Thailand had servants to fan them. The rest were fanning themselves with quaint little fans that you can still buy in the trinket markets. Today, just about everybody have electric fans and most have air conditioners – made possible by the unsustainable luxury spending of tourists like us. Tourism is just one of the many industries they excel in. They have flourishing agriculture and manufacturing resulting in rising living standards. Anybody in Thailand today can afford a motorcycle and just about everybody seems to have one. Isn’t that unsustainable? When a Thai guy hops on his motorcycle to go to a party on the other side of the island isn’t that unsustainable? What if he only makes a detour on his way home? The Thai can afford some ‘luxuries’ today partly from the income provided to them by the tourist industry. If tourism would disappear, 95% of all businesses on Kho Phangan (where I write this) would cease to exist. Would that help the cause of sustainability?
We did not have to go to Thailand either. The whole trip was a luxury.
We went to the floating markets of Bangkok. Well, not really. The only functioning one is outside of Bangkok, about 90 minutes drive from the city. It was a depressing experience. The only function of the market is to provide a pretend experience for the tourists. Thai farmers no longer use the amazing canal system and they could not yet find an alternate use for them. The whole trip was an expensive yet pointless circus. A waste of money, time and lots of non-renewable resources. Should it be banned? Taxed? Or should these tours be just allowed to fade away as even tourists realize how pointless they are?
Let’s be fair to the environmentalist. Actually, let’s not – but we should be fair to the argument.
The economic aspect of the sustainability argument is that we live in a world of finite resources and we should not use more than what we can replace. The point is that they are not against development per se, only against the irresponsible ‘overuse’ of finite resources condemning our descendants to the misery of unsatisfiable wants. We shouldn’t get into the argument explaining the economic illiteracy of the point, but we cannot avoid asking questions.
How should sustainability be achieved? What should be sustained and how?
The political argument is that the market cannot do an acceptable job managing our non-renewable resources and ‘we’ meaning conscious political actors have to somehow do what the market is inherently incapable of doing.
The problem with the economic argument
……is that it ignores both logic and experience. Past experience shows that if we run out of one resource, it will be replaced by another one. The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stone. If we run short of one resource, the price system will send out signals that we should either find more, use what we have more efficiently or find a substitute.
More efficient operations do not reduce the use of the resources involved. Quite the contrary. This is called Jevon’s paradox.
Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson” has a whole chapter (chapter 7) full of historic examples. The more efficient Air Canada becomes, the more people will travel and in the end more ‘unsustainable’ non-renewable resources will be used.
The problem with the political arguments
……is how fuzzy they are. We have to ask what it is that we want to sustain, why and how.
The resources? How? As I pointed out in the argument above, encouraging more efficient use is counterproductive.
The actual use of the resources? Again, how? Through some sort of taxation, or some decrees and regulation?
Taxation ( such as a carbon tax) is just a political manipulation of market mechanism called the price system and we have to ask what makes the artificial process better than the natural one? Is there any evidence that it ever worked better?
The most dangerous, the most anti-human of the available options is the direct influencing of people’s choices with the use of government powers.
Then again, we have to ask what should be done? Population control? Where and how? Resource control? Which ones and how? Control of economic activities? Which ones and how? Should we ban, control and limit tourism? Trade? Transportation? Self-indulgence and luxuries? Eating imported Thai shrimps in Toronto? Who should decide what is and what is not sustainable? Who should decide what activities should be limited and to what extent? Who can know where is the line between a necessity and luxury?
In the environmentalist fantasy land of sustainability we should be living in complete harmony with nature. But nature is never in harmony, never in balance. Some animals thrive, then their numbers grow, they use up resources, then their numbers vane. Humans are the most successful species because they are the most apt to manage their resources and the most adaptable finding new ones.
The moment we start questioning the sustainability demands, we invariably find a de-development agenda that is not very palatable to spell out. Environmentalists seldom go beyond touchy-feely platitudes but when they do what we find is that the answer is to limit every sphere of our existence in the name of this anti-human agenda. The ultimate goal is not sustainability but de-development under the control of a self-appointed elite which is flexing its muscle when demanding large corporations to bow to their political will. None of the goals of the environmentalists can be reached outside of a soviet style command economy and we know what the environmental impact of that experiment was. On the other hand, I do not believe that the environmentalists care. The goal is not green, the goal is red.
In the end I think what Air Canada is doing is simply PR; they do the bullshitting because that is what’s expected from them. It could be argued that they are spineless trying to appease the environmentalists. We could expect them to stand up and to stay that they are in the transportation, not in the sustainability business but we also have to understand that doing so would cost them lots of money and jeopardize the ultimate goal of any business: making profit.
Bullshitting is the cheapest way to placate. Are they fooling anybody? Are they fooling you? Are they fooling themselves? Are they fooling the environmentalists? If yes, will this satisfy them or get them ready for more outlandish demands?
I don’t believe Air Canada is doing the right thing. Appeasement is never the right thing.