Art Carden  

Of Fossil Fuels, Forests, and the Future of Prosperity

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We live on a heavily-wooded suburban lot in Hoover, Alabama, just outside of Birmingham, surrounded by neighbors and a very short drive from Samford. Periodically, we'll roast hot dogs over sticks and branches we find in the yard (see "heavily-wooded") in a fire pit on the back porch.

Every time we do this, I reflect on what modernity has wrought. It's fun to cook food over branches, leaves, and discarded paper, but were it not for fossil fuels my guess is that the lands around us would be denuded in pretty short order, even by a much smaller population at a much lower standard of living.

In addition, we would probably have more respiratory illnesses. A fire pit produces a pleasant, smokey scent, and I'm happy to provide that positive externality for the neighborhood. If everyone had to rely on wood fires rather than natural gas for heating and cooking, however, I suspect the air around us would be much less pleasant.

Watching a pit full of sticks and leaves get consumed by flames and watching smoke billow up into the air also makes me think about the future of prosperity and where we might be able to push production possibilities. How, in the future, will people figure out how to turn garbage--the smoke and soot fire generates--into a resource? I'll go ahead and make myself vulnerable to an argumentum ad Monsantum and ask how far we are from developing foods that produce less waste both throughout the food supply chain and after they've been consumed and processed by the body.

So drink deep from the cup of the Great Conversation. Michael Munger discussed this in the context of recycling in one of my favorite EconTalk podcasts. Ed Glaeser explains why a condo in Manhattan is probably a lot greener than my heavily-wooded suburban lot. If you haven't read it yet, Richard McKenzie explains how driving might actually be less pollution-intensive than walking in this month's EconLog featured essay. In this brief talk, Matt Ridley explains "How Fossil Fuels are Greening the Planet."


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
ThomasH writes:

While it is intuitively plausible that a Manhattan condo contributes less to ACC than a suburban house, without the power of market prices to aggregate information, it is almost impossible to say that one thing contributes less to CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere than another. Command and control solutions, even if well motivated and voluntary, are not likely to be effective.

MingoV writes:
Ed Glaeser explains why a condo in Manhattan is probably a lot greener than my heavily-wooded suburban lot.
Let's start at the beginning. Carbon dioxide production is not an appropriate measure of environmental friendliness, especially when the sign is reversed. CO2 is needed by all plants and organisms that use photosynthesis for energy. So, as far as plant growth is concerned, more CO2 is better than less CO2.

That aside, the house on the wooded lot is good for the environment because when a wooded lot is owned by someone who appreciates it, there is a low probability that the wooded lot (which is something environmentalists hope to preserve) will be cleared and turned into a bean field.

JKB writes:

This excerpt from 'The Most Powerful Idea in the World' is right on point. It discusses the rise of coal as fuel in England once wood became scarce and was realized as better used as construction material.

By 1230, England had cut down so many trees for construction and for fuel that it was importing most of its timber from Scandinavia, and turned to what would then have been called an alternative energy source: Coal.

JKB writes:
How, in the future, will people figure out how to turn garbage--the smoke and soot fire generates--into a resource?

Well, we already eliminate most of the smoke and soot by ensuring a complete burn with forced air, etc. Pollution control equipment removes the bulk of the particles that won't burn, such as heavy metals. That is why they are going after CO2 and why the "crisis" photos of smokestacks these days are set up to capture water vapor condensation. Will technology scale down so that such garbage can be captured in the intermittent consumer burning? We might even be able to make recycling cost effective at the homeowner level instead of the net environmental loss it is now.

Andrew_FL writes:

Okay I really regret clicking that SciAm link, thanks for that. So much nonsense trying to save Maher from too harsh of criticism and the author thereof committing the very fallacy he accuses Maher of (rightly!).

At any rate, your post is appreciated, and I think right on the money.

ThomasH writes:

@MingoV: Like every other commodity, the value of and additional CO2 molecule released into the atmosphere depends on how many are already there. It is highly doubtful that higher concentrations of CO2 would have a measurable impact on plant growth; other factors are usually constraining. And there are the negative effects, more acetic oceans, higher sea levels from warmer oceans and melting glaciers. On balance, I think CO2 emissions are a pretty good index of "environmental friendliness."

You are right to point to the positive impact of the woodland trapping a lot of C but you also have to factor in greater transportation costs from low density and of heating an cooling an isolated structure compared to a unit in a large building.

Still, without a price for CO2 emissions and the adjustments they would bring, it's hard to say what activities would produce more or less CO2

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