The following list is a combination of things you can do in your personal life and in the world at large to fight pollution. One might think it is important to draw a distinction between these two types of activities because large scale reforms are more difficult to achieve. However, big changes can only occur when individuals take it upon themselves to do what’s right, whether it’s organizing large groups of people or influencing influencers. Simply informing yourself and prioritizing how to most effectively use your energy is an essential first step to making the world a better place.
Fighting pollution and many of the world’s other seemingly intractable problems requires operating with a greater awareness of the policy issues that stand to make the most difference. The 19th century social reformer Henry George said “Until there be correct thought, there cannot be right action; and when there is correct thought, right action will follow.” Of course, some people have more of a preference for bailing water out of the sinking ship while others have more of a preferences for plugging the hole. This list practically reflects that reality.
1. Eat Less Meat
Livestock production causes many forms of pollution, from being the largest source of greenhouse gases (44% globally), to polluting water (feces, blood, etc) with diseases that can jump from animals to humans. Historically bubonic plague, bird-flu, HIV/AIDS, and Ebola were transmitted from animals to people, and new zoonotic diseases are highly likely given the scale of current factory farming methods. Processing leather is also especially harmful to the environment, most notably in the third world. For instance, untreated tannery wastewater laden with animal parts and heavy metals freely flows through Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Industrial production of animals could be steered toward less environmentally destructive ends, especially by employing permaculture methods, which involve making use of feces. There are supplements to reduce the greenhouse gases released in cow burps (farts are surprisingly not as harmful). However, the most practical solution for individuals concerned about pollution, and other ethical considerations regarding slaughtering animals, is to simply stop buying animal products. Stop buying meat, leather, etc and organize against a factory farm near you.
2. Tax Pollution
The main argument levied against trying to curb climate change is that such regulation might harm the economy. However, there is a way to curb pollution while simultaneously giving the economy an actual boost.
It means taking taxes off productive things like wages, sales, etc (goods) and putting them on (bads) like pollution. Governments give a lot of free money away to energy companies in the form of subsidies as well. So, simply eliminating those subsidies would remove the distortionary effects that the free-market climate change naysayers ostensibly care about. The more you pollute, the more you pay. This results in less pollution overall.
Unfortunately, initial attempts to price carbon resulted in a harmful policy called “Cap and Trade” which actually allots polluting quotas to companies based on how much they already pollute and then lets them sell their unmet quotas to others. In effect, the biggest polluters get to make a huge profit for being the most irresponsible! Companies also double dip; they pollute up to or more than their limit and then sell their quotas anyway. This in turn allows others to pollute more and to thus exceed the larger carbon cap.
The most effective policy is to simply tax all companies directly (at the same rate), and do away with anything resembling Cap and Trade altogether. We should tax many other pollutants as well, not just carbon. Perfluorotributylamine for instance is actually 7,100 times worse in terms of its effects on climate change.
It’s not just corporate giants that need to be financially dissuaded from polluting. We could all use a financial incentive to do the right thing. We need to tax consumption and improper disposal of harmful consumer products like non-rechargeable batteries and grocery bags. We should offer rebate systems (pay people) to properly recycle and dispose of household pollutants. This is especially important with respect to hormonal treatments like birth control, which wreck havoc on amphibians and larger ecosystems. In the mean time, take advantage of the National Drug Take-Back Day initiative. Those who produce, return, and reuse completely recyclable forms of plastic should be offered a rebate as well.
We need to charge higher rent to companies doing offshore oil drilling, and high excise taxes for extracting many types of natural resources. This will discourage and reduce environmental harm. There are a host of other important measures as well, such as taxing parking, traffic congestion, soil depletion, harmful pesticides and fertilizers, a range of environmental bads.
3. Move to a Denser Area
One might imagine that the most environmentally friendly way to live would be to move to a rural area. In fact, this is probably one of the most environmentally destructive things you can do. You would have to live without access to communication, all electronics that is, a grocery store, heating/cooling, running water, medical care: i.e. give up everything, and live completely off the grid. While that might be more environmentally friendly for you alone, if everyone did it, a great deal of habitat would be lost.
The further away you live from the products and services you use, the more energy and natural resources required to sustain you. If you live in a rural or suburban area, you likely rely on your car for everything; this is what most oil in the US is used for. Lightweight vehicles consume roughly 8 million barrels of oil per day in the US. This is more than commercial light trucks, bus transportation, freight trucks, rail, passenger freight rail, domestic and international shipping, air carriers (which have become much more efficient), recreational boats, military use, lubricants, and pipeline fuel combined (5.4 million barrels).
Compare that to living on the upper east side of Manhattan where you can walk down to the store at the bottom of your building. You take the train to go to work and the doctor’s office. You don’t even need to own a car. People living in the same building also use less energy for heating, cooling, and other activities. Therefore, we could reduce energy consumption the most simply by living in denser areas.
Population growth isn’t the real culprit either. In fact our cities are sprawling twice as fast as population is growing. The far bigger problem is that we are not making efficient use of central urban locations. We can completely reverse this. There is a way.
4. Land Value Tax
Density may sound like a dirty word, but it isn’t. People associate density with slums, but the upper east side in Manhattan is one of the densest places in the world with 46,000 people per square kilometer (PPSKM) in the wealthy section east of 3rd Ave, and 70,000 PPSKM elsewhere. That’s higher than the densest city (as a whole) in the world, Manila (42,857 PPSKM), where slums actually are a big problem.
Still, there are 7,000 privately owned vacant residential lots in New York City. That’s not even counting all of the vacant commercial lots, derelict structures, and ground level parking. It’s also not counting short buildings where more consistent construction, of say 10 stories, would be more appropriate. This is untapped vertical space that could be used to take pressure off the greenfields at the periphery.
The goal isn’t to maximize skyscrapers, but to simply to make effective use of central urban locations that are currently wasted. Think of skyscrapers as a kind of vertical sprawl, cramming units upward due to the inadequate use of space surrounding these tall buildings. The tallest buildings in NYC, for instance, are in midtown and downtown, not the Upper East Side. However, the Upper East Side is still much denser.
The Upper East Side does not feel claustrophobic. In fact, it’s arguably the most sought after residential area in the world, relatively calm and only a stone’s throw from Central Park. Everyone can enjoy the benefits of such density if we, including you, help enact the right policies.
It’s all well and good to say that we want more density but what is the most effective means of achieving it? How do we get all of those vacant urban lot owners to make their lots available for jobs and housing? Helping to inform them of the negative effect they’re having is one option, but it would likely have little effect alone in light of the huge profits to be made in real estate speculation. That’s precisely why we should tax the value of the land.
Taxing the value of land means that individual landowners in city centers are faced with a decision, do I make my valuable location available for people and business, generating the rental revenue to pay the tax, or do I continue to do nothing and lose money by holding onto ownership of this central urban location? Should I do something useful with the land, pay the tax and keep the difference, or do I sell the land to someone who will? Either way, the space will no longer be wasted. As all the landowners are faced with that same incentive, there will be more infill and thus less sprawl.
Another way of thinking about it is that people can’t easily afford to live in cities due to an inadequate supply of housing relative to the number of people who want to live there. If there were more apartments to people, rent would decrease and people could more easily afford to live near the center of the city. There would be more apartments constructed and renovated. Thus, housing would be more affordable.
Note, the land value tax. and the other taxes on environmental bads mentioned earlier, would replace all other taxes, including taxes on buildings. So, it would mean that renters in urban areas would basically not pay taxes, just rent. The result is that environmentally friendly ways of living and producing would be more profitable than their destructive alternatives. We could have the best of both worlds, lots of innovation and little pollution.
To learn more about the land value tax and its effect on sprawl, see our article Visualizing Earth Sharing.
5. Join the Earth Sharing Movement
Make it a point to signup for our newsletter to regularly engage with Earth Sharing articles, reach out to us, and donate. Join our discussion group on Facebook (LVT), inquire about one of our events, improve your understanding of economics by taking a course for college credit, and read one of our books.