Little green lies

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

White lies are well-meaning and innocuous. When we tell them, we feel justified or excused—a subtle moment of dishonesty that promotes a better, kinder world. But not all little lies are white. Some are green.

We read and hear “little green lies” everywhere: “we are running out of landfill space,” “population growth must be controlled,” and “economic growth and the environment are incompatible.” They are becoming as common as white lies, but their effects can be very different. Many of these perceived environmental threats are simply misunderstood, at best, or deliberately misleading, at worst. Such lies deserve closer scrutiny so that their significance in directing environmental public policy can be better understood.

Agriculture versus Environment

Consider the following little green lie: Modern agricultural practices always conflict with the environment. Environmental advocates, including groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, try to convince consumers to buy organic or nongenetically modified food—or, better yet, to grow their own. But is this type of agriculture more environmentally friendly than modern agriculture? Not necessarily. Herbicides, for example, allow minimal tillage farming that reduces soil erosion, and genetically modified (GM) crops require fewer insecticides. But advocates believe that they are preventing people from harming the environment and themselves if they can instill the little green lie.

Little green lies may also be good for their tellers. If more individuals believe the agriculture-versus-theenvironment story and buy organic, GM-free food, the environmental advocates are better off because they see more people contributing to the achievement of the environmental goals they hold dear.

A proponent may also be an organic farmer whose produce will be in higher demand if organic food is embraced by consumers. The belief that organic food trumps competing conventional food, despite a higher price, generates an improvement in organic farm income and wealth.

If little green lies are believed by the broader public, then their promulgators may also be able to secure public policy goals that further satisfy their own preferences, but often at the expense of others. Some environmental advocates, for example, try to convince members of the public and their political representatives that conventional agriculture causes environmental harm. If their lobbyists are successful, then the political process will generate more and more policy outcomes forcing a switch from conventional to organic farming. This makes proponents happier and gives them more of a reason to spread the little lie.

But there are costs associated with spreading green lies. If the political force generated by the agricultureversus- the-environment lie is sufficiently strong, farmers may be prevented from using herbicides. An herbicide ban would mean reduced farm profits. A few farmers may even go out of business. People would also have to pay more for the food that would have otherwise been produced more cheaply using herbicides. The higher price of food is a cost, but one that is spread across the whole of society. If spread thinly enough, people are more willing to bear their small share of the costs—given their newly formed perceptions of herbicides. In short, the more the costs of little green lie policies are dispersed throughout society, the less likely they will be challenged.

Little Lies—Big Bang

The little white lies analogy suggests that everyone will be better off if we just let little green lies go past without correction. But this is where the analogy ends. Unlike white lies, little green lies are not harmless. Revealing the truth about little green lies will make society as a whole better off.

Exposing green lies and preventing or reversing public and private decisions that flow from them would make their advocates worse off. The special interests that are advanced by the acceptance of the little green lies would be set back. But the well-being of the public, who would otherwise bear the costs of the little green lies, would be improved.

The analogy with little white lies is also on shaky ground in terms of whether or not the teller knows it is a lie. Those who advance little green lies may not be aware of their position’s lack of veracity and may be convinced that they are acting for the greater good. An organic food advocate, for example, may see a field that has been sprayed with herbicides and conclude that it must pollute the soil and rivers. He or she may decide then that the higher prices of organic foods are worth paying.

There are two specific problems associated with the process used to come to that conclusion. First, the individual’s concerns about the “pollution” caused by the use of herbicides may not be shared by the majority of the population. Second, the understanding of the impacts of choosing organic foods over conventional foods may be limited to a single dimension—the pollution perceived to be associated with the use of herbicides.

These two problems can be generalized as follows. First, the little green lie approach is based on the environmental preferences of a few rather than the well-being of society as a whole. Second, it is focused on single issues and so misses the big-picture consequences of the actions taken.

The first characteristic is problematic because a conclusion and its policy outcome, drawn on the basis of the preferences of an individual or a specific interest group within society, may be detrimental to society as a whole. The little green lie teller knows his or her own preferences for the environment, but can’t say with certainty what the rest of society thinks about the environment. Yet those promulgating little green lies try to convince the broader community that their preferences are the right ones when they set out to publicize their environmental viewpoint. If successful, they impose their preferences on others, even though their gain from doing so may be overwhelmed by the aggregation of the losses endured by those who do not share those preferences.

The second characteristic is problematic because the concentration on a single dimension of an issue can deliver perverse outcomes. Society and the environment form complex interdependent systems. Key features of such systems are the feedback loops that can accentuate change or contradict it. The implications of change are rarely straightforward. Concentrating on a single dimension of change is inadequate and potentially harmful to society. A ban on herbicides, for example, would lead to more mechanical cultivation of the soil to reduce weed infestations of crops. More tillage means more loss of soil structure and a greater risk of increased soil erosion.

The logical strategy to avoid the problematic characteristics of little green lies is to adopt an analytical stance that is based on a societal perspective. This process involves looking beyond the immediacy of an environmental issue. It means taking into account the many dimensions across time and space that characterize the interface between society and the environment.

Taking a “societal” perspective necessitates an understanding of society’s preferences, which are hard to observe. The difficulties are especially vexatious in the area of the environment because there are limited windows through which these preferences can be observed. For society, people’s preferences are revealed in what they buy and sell. But for environmental goods and services, there are few markets in which community-wide preferences can be seen. Put simply, the truth is out there but it’s hard to pin down.

Despite the difficulty in defining society’s preferences, it doesn’t mean we should simply accept little green lies. Every day we face a barrage of information with little opportunity for quiet contemplation of the various pieces presented to us. But such contemplation is important because all that glitters is not gold. This is particularly true with green issues. Views on the environment are often strong and emotional—especially when the survival of species and the well-being of future generations are perceived to be at stake.

If one can push the emotions to the side, however, it becomes clear that little green lies are potentially counterintuitive in terms of their environmental consequences. This is because of their inappropriate focus on just one dimension of the issue at ha

nd and because they are typically based on the preferences of an individual or a specific interest group. If taken to their logical policy conclusions, such lies can be counterproductive for the environment and society as a whole.


Jeff Bennett, 2011 PERC Lone Mountain Fellow, is a professor of economics and the director of the Environmental Economics Research Hub, Crawford School of Economics & Government at the Australian National University. Bennett is a distinguished fellow of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society and also a member of the...
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