Tag Archives: Bill McKibben

A Grammar Mnemonic to Save the World

You’ve all heard it – at least I hope you have – starting, probably, sometime in grade school: “i before e except after c.”  (Are you listening, all you caffeinated Keiths and Sheilas? And I suppose it’s a bit too late for Einstein.) Taking some editorial license, I’d like to propose a modification for the purposes of environmentalism and economics: “i before e especially after c.”

I’m not referring to the letters i, e and c here, but rather to some words beginning with those letters. The “i” is for internalize; the “e” is for externalize; and the “c?” Well, that’s for carbon. So what I’m saying here in a more or less catchy albeit derivative way is we should internalize costs, in particular, environmental costs, rather than externalizing them as we currently do in most cases. And that this is especially important when the costs involve carbon.


© David Bergman

Let me back up a moment for those who have not had the misfortune of either an economics background or regular encounters with the word “externalize.” (If you haven’t, you may need to internalize that word so that you can toss it around in, say, dinner conversations with your climate change denying relatives.) An externality, as used in the dismal science, is often defined as “an effect of a purchase or use decision by one set of parties on others who did not have a choice and whose interests were not taken into account.” It amounts to a rebuttal of “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” because an externality is, in effect, a free lunch for the party causing the cost.

Externalities are, arguably, the primary reason our capitalist system screws the environment (and us along with it). From a business’s point of view, why care about costs that you don’t have to pay for? The obvious response is to make the person or company causing the environmental costs pay for them. In the case of climate disruption and carbon emissions, the method is some form of carbon pricing, preferably a cap and dividend system like that promoted by eco-stalwarts Bill McKibben and James Hansen, and first introduced as legislation in 2009. A carbon fee would be a more direct route, but cap and dividend would offset the increased price of carbon-emitting forms of energy. In theory, that should have been more acceptable – if not actually desirable – but our head-in-the-sand, hands-in-the-money legislators thought otherwise.

The i-before-e rule can be applied to many industries. It’s most often talked about in terms of power plants. But here’s another example to ponder: if airlines or aircraft manufacturers had to pay a fee for the carbon emissions of their planes, that would have at least two effects. It would increase the costs of air travel so passengers would make more accurate decisions about when and where to fly (and could choose to use their carbon dividends to pay the higher but environmentally correct costs). Perhaps more significantly, it would shift the responsibility and the incentive to develop less polluting planes and engines to the industry. The same would hold true for manufacturers of products ranging from cars to cable boxes. (I hate that the cable boxes we’re forced to accept from the cable TV monopolies are huge suckers of vampire energy. I recently asked Time Warner if they had Energy Star-rated boxes – which do exist – and got an apathetic “nah” for a reply.)

The original “i before e except after c” is usually followed by the disclaimer “or when sounded as ‘a’ as in neighbor and weigh.” Aside from the fact that there’s a, um, surfeit (that seemed to be the appropriate word to use here) of exceptions, it’s a somewhat unfortunate addition when added to our version since we’re referring to weighing the cost of carbon in order to promote better communities among neighbors. Okay, so that last part’s a bit of a stretch. But I don’t think it means I have to forfeit the idea, unless you’re going to get feisty on me. The fact that the English language is a mess, breaking rules left and right and undoubtedly causing externalities of its own, shouldn’t keep us from adopting this eco-mnemonic.

Don’t Argue the Science

The facts of climate disruption and resource depletion are abundant and the logic is clear, yet we keep losing the argument in the realm of public opinion. As a result, pundits and bloggers have been advocating that we drop the scientific approach and instead make the case by promoting other benefits.

A recent example: Bill Chameides writes in The Green Grok (gotta love a Heinlein reference):

When it comes to climate, “just the facts, ma’am” doesn’t seem to cut it for some.

[I]f  you’re a scientist, [you] provide the unconvinced with more evidence, more data, and surely they will come around. Problem is, scientists continue to do just that and continue to make little or no progress or, worse, lose ground.

[F]or some, it appears, personal beliefs and cultural associations trump scientific facts.

Bill McKibben was on Real Time with Bill Maher last week. He was his usual masterfully informative self, as David Roberts of Grist acknowledged. In his post, though, Roberts

Bill McKibben, to the right of Maher. Link to clip here








“Tuesday afternoon quarterbacks” (his description) and says he wishes McKibben, instead of following the standard environmentalist’s response to the claim that “the science isn’t in” by petulantly answering “yes, it is,” had said

this kind of uncertainty isn’t a reason to sit back on our laurels and wait for more information. It’s the opposite! After all, if there’s a 50 percent chance things could turn out better than our best estimates, there’s also a 50 percent chance they could turn out worse. And if you’ve seen our best estimates, you know that “worse” should give you nightmares.

From there, it’s an easy leap to the fire insurance argument. (If you know there’s a chance your house might catch fire, do you wait for it to happen or do you get fire insurance and also try to minimize the chances?)

But in the same way that Roberts says McKibben is almost but not quite on the mark, I think Roberts misses an important part of the argument as well. (Before I get further into this point, let me say that I’m a big follower of both McKibben and Roberts. And just as Roberts couches his criticism of McKibben, acknowledging that he’d be hard pressed to do better than McKibben did, I want to note that my critiquing here of Roberts – who writes terrific posts —  is not meant to indicate I disagree with him in any big way.)

Roberts starts to make what I think is the better argument in writing “when the response to “it’ll cost too much” is “but we have to do it,” climate hawks implicitly concede the cost argument.”  (His emphasis.) He’s absolutely right, but then he lets it go.

We shouldn’t concede the cost argument, or the sacrifice one, because neither of them is true.

As I’ve often written here, when accurate and full “true” costing is calculated, the bottom lines almost always tell us that, in the big picture, environmental regulations do not cost more but, in fact, save money.

And the other premise of EcoOptimism is that we can implement these changes – whether they be regulations or corrections to our free market accounting – without diminishing the quality of our lives. Quite the opposite, as I hope we’ll continue to explore here; we have the opportunity to improve how we live while diminishing our demands on the planet. As I like to put it, we can not only stop biting the hand that feeds us, we can bandage and heal that hand – and still eat well. If we don’t, well that’s when we end up sooner or later without food (metaphorically as well as literally) at all.

But getting back to Roberts’ point about how to best make the environmentalist argument, here’s what EcoOptimism advocates: showing that we can do this without economic disaster and without social upheaval negates most of the anti-environmentalism argument. Combined with the fire insurance metaphor, it disarms hoaxers and deniers by saying, even if this is all a hoax or not true, it doesn’t matter because it will take us to better places in any case. It says there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain.