Thursday, March 31, 2011

6 Socially Conscious Actions That Only Look Like They Help


By C. Coville Mar 30, 2011 763,691 views
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There are those who want to improve the world around us and who do so in intelligent, well-thought-out ways. Then there are those of us whose desire to help the environment is mostly based on being bored or shallow or wanting to fit in after we get lost in Whole Foods. Unfortunately, most of humanity is made up of the latter type. Also unfortunately, a lot of the half-assed stuff we do not only doesn't help but actually ends up making things worse for everyone.

Rescuing Oil-Covered Birds

The Idea

Imagine an oil spill, and chances are the first thing you'll think of is an oil-covered bird helplessly flapping its wings. Birds rely on clean feathers to keep warm and stay afloat, and slicked birds often starve to death while grooming themselves. Understandably, after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, volunteer information focused heavily on pictures of dirty pelicans and information about helping these birds, because it's a much more effective ad than showing people wiping down rocks.

"Hold on, rocks. We'll get through this together."

How We Half-Ass It

Although it seems like something that can be done with a net, a bottle of shampoo and some dead fish, bird capture is really a job that should be reserved for the experts. But during the Gulf spill, that didn't prevent inexperienced cleanup crews from trying to chase down oiled birds, which succeeded only in terrifying them even more and in most cases driving them further away from relatively safe territory into the oily waters and away from the experienced cleaners who could have brought them in safely. Still other workers did worse, disturbing nests of endangered birds and even trampling their eggs and chicks.

"The Monday Margarita Breakfast is great for morale but hard on the wildlife."

And the survivors aren't much luckier: If they make it through the grueling cleaning process, they're often released into the wrong habitat, and depending on species and location, up to 99 percent of them then die quickly of starvation or poisoning from ingested oil. In other words, scrubbing oil off a helpless bird makes for a great photo op. But if you want to help, your time, energy and expense would be better spent doing virtually anything.

Volunteering Overseas

The Idea

So, lately your yearly vacations to the International Cheese Rolling Festival have left you feeling unfulfilled. Don't despair: There's always voluntourism, a growing movement that allows you to travel the world while helping the needy. A recent survey found that two-thirds of American high school students have considered this type of volunteer vacation.

This isn't a new trend among rich white people, either.

Traditional organizations mostly look for volunteers with relevant skills: doctors, nurses, dentists, qualified teachers and people fluent in foreign languages. Still, they also welcome unskilled travelers who can do stuff like clerical work and cleaning while the professionals offer the help that's desperately needed.

How We Half-Ass It

Acquiring a professional skill can take years of effort, and typing up vaccination reports doesn't exactly make for great travel photos to send back home. So instead, the boom in voluntourism is focused on prepackaged tours offering unskilled volunteers a wide range of exciting activities: weeklong stays looking after children in AIDS orphanages, short trips to Africa to build houses and stints teaching English in isolated parts of South America.

"These people need my liberal arts degree and ability to swing a hammer haphazardly."

So what? It's better than your standard vacation, where the only person you "help" is your own fat ass up onto a waterslide, right? Wrong: In most cases, this practice actually hurts the people it's trying to help.

Let's say you work in construction. One day, your neighborhood suddenly floods with energetic, iPod-toting young people who joyfully start doing the same job you're doing, but for free. Imagine the American immigration debate, only the immigrants have no skills, and they aren't just working for less money, but for free -- their only compensation being a series of photos about how caring they are posted to their Facebook pages when they get back home.

So the result is wonkily made houses sprouting up everywhere, built by people who don't know drywall from the holes they're putting in those walls, pushing local workers out of much-needed jobs and screwing up economies that are already screwed up enough to warrant charity work.

"Ooh! Rita! Get a picture of me pouring my CamelBak into this little girl's water jug."

Long-term effects aren't much better if you're into helping children, either. Voluntourists jump at the chance to make a lasting difference in the lives of cute underprivileged youths. But the thing is, they really want pictures of those malnourished children swarming about their knees in gratitude -- that's the picture that gets you laid back home at the pub. But the most lasting good is done to the community by training other local teachers to teach English, and nobody wants to sleep with the guy who brings home pictures of himself surrounded by competent adults looking at books together. So local teachers go untrained, and confused students end up getting a new and completely inexperienced English teacher every month or so.

"Hey I think our teacher might be a dumbass."

Foreigners who volunteer for short periods in orphanages can do even more harm. The steady flow of Western media attention on AIDS orphanages means they get tons of funding that could otherwise have been devoted to keeping those children with their surviving extended family instead. One study of Cambodian orphanages revealed that only 25 percent of "orphans" there had actually lost both parents. In the worst cases, this leads to children being placed in orphanages by both of their alive but desperately poor parents, because they can only get someone to help their kids if they completely abandon them to rich people who take pictures alongside them, like a substantially more tragic version of that guy in the Donald Duck costume at Disneyland.

On the plus side, you and your girlfriend get to spend a fun week playing with cute kids and taking blurry cellphone pictures of temples. Surely that's worth some premature orphan-ing.

Using Biofuels

The Idea

Since the dawn of time, mankind has dreamed of saving the world using alcohol. And for a while in the mid-2000s, when biofuel use became a big issue, it looked like it might finally happen. Ethanol fuel, an alcohol-based alternative to gasoline, gave us the chance to cultivate our own fuel sources rather than rely on foreign oil imports. Even better, you can make ethanol out of pretty much anything: grains, table scraps, grass clippings, crop waste -- really, any substance that has ever been secretly fermented in a prison toilet can probably be used to power your car.

He's experimenting with the legendary Jenkem colada right now.

How We Half-Ass It

America was faced with a choice: Put time and effort into the research and development of advanced, sustainable biofuels, or say "fuck it" and just make ethanol out of the stuff we make everything out of: corn. Guess which one we chose?

With enough corn, the whole world could be as picturesque as Kansas.

Today, over 90 percent of America's ethanol is produced from corn, an industry propped up by government mandates and a federal subsidy of around $5.6 billion a year. This is despite the fact that growing corn uses a ridiculously large amount of water, causes epic erosion and requires a nitrogen-rich fertilizer that has been linked to algae blooms and huge aquatic "dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico.

Given all that, you'd hope that it at least works, right? Nope! Adding corn ethanol to gasoline makes cars less energy-efficient, and producing it actually requires about 30 percent more energy than we can get out of it. In other words, not only does this type of ethanol fail to reduce our energy consumption, it actually increases it. To top it off, corn-based products that until recently would have ended up inside people have instead been going into SUV gas tanks. This has caused a massive worldwide increase in produce prices, as we literally burn people's food in order to get ourselves to the store so we can buy more food.

These guys have America's balls in a tighter vise than OPEC's.

Meanwhile, less-developed biofuel alternatives like algae biodiesel or cellulosic ethanol have struggled to compete for attention and funding. Both of these are thought to be more efficient than corn and aren't derived from food products, but they're sorely lacking in spiteful irony and so have gone largely uncultivated. Recently, there have been efforts to cut down on corn ethanol subsidies, but they've been opposed at every step by politicians from corn-producing Midwestern states, who have all eerily developed a sudden love for the environment.

Sweet momma Gaia needs more Monsanto corn!"

Purchasing Reusable Bags

The Idea

Apart from depressed teenage dudes who like to give monologues about how beautiful they are, plastic bags have never had much of a fan club. Sure, they might get your groceries home, but they're also wasteful and harmful to marine life, and they seem to multiply of their own accord when you shove them all in a drawer somewhere. So we were all pretty happy when humanity finally came up with an alternative: the reusable bag. Instead of throwing away billions of single-use bags every year, consumers would buy or be given sturdy recyclable grocery bags. These bags could be washed and reused hundreds of times, and shoppers would bring them back to the store whenever they needed them. Disposable plastic bags would disappear, the environment would be much better off, and there would be no more monologues about stuff stupid teenagers mistakenly think is deep. Right?

Sometimes, there's just so much beauty in the world. This is not one of those times.

How We Half-Ass It

We forgot just one detail in our reusable bags plan: the "reusing them" part.

According to studies, only around 10 percent of consumers actually remember to take back their bags to the store on a regular basis. Even in San Francisco, which went as far as to ban plastic bags altogether, a survey revealed that nearly 60 percent of people "almost never" took their reusable bags back to the store. And those are just the ones who openly admitted that they were eco-conscious posers. This year, two major grocery store chains announced plans to end their reusable bag rebates after studies found that offering shoppers discounts to reuse their bags didn't affect how much they actually did it. We just keep amassing more and more new reusable bags in a shameful pile behind our unused exercise equipment and pristine copies of important novels, promising that next time we go to the grocery store, we won't forget.

"I can't use the bag for groceries -- it's holding my entire wax fruit collection!"

But hey, they're still better than those horrible disposable plastic bags, right? Yes, sometimes, but in most cases, no. Depending on the material they're made of, reusable bags require between 28 and 200 times as much energy to produce as the old, evil ones. To make up for the environmental damage, you might have to take that reusable bag on your weekly grocery run for about four straight years. And when we finally do get sick of wading through the knee-high piles of unused reusable bags in our homes and throw them out, the heavier material means that they'll take up more landfill space and take longer to decompose.

Above: Fighting garbage with garbage.

Eating Local

The Idea

The object of the "local food" movement is simple: Eat only foods that have been grown close to where you live. By restricting "food miles," or the distance food has traveled before it reaches your belly, you can reduce pollution and carbon emissions from food transport as well as support your local community.

And yet, almost no homeowners associations allow you to raise dozens upon dozens of chickens in your backyard. It's lunacy.

This movement has gained some official acceptance in the United Kingdom, where the government has pledged to cut food miles by 20 percent by 2012. In 2007, several British grocery chains added a special "air freight" label to fresh food, warning green-conscious shoppers that it had been flown in from overseas. There was even a movement to get air-freighted food stripped of its organic label. In America, the "100-mile diet" has been popular among foodies since 2006, with devotees determined to eat only food that's produced within a 100-mile radius of their house.

We feel better knowing our meat was butchered in a slaughterhouse close by. Sometimes Tim fancies he can hear their cries for mercy.

How We Half-Ass It

Nobody wants to actually change what they eat. If our oranges come from Mexico and we decide we want to eat local instead, we don't just stop eating oranges. No, we instead insist that somebody start growing oranges nearby. And there's a reason they weren't already doing that.

The vast majority -- over 90 percent -- of food-related emissions don't come from transportation, but production. So if food is grown in a place where it can't be produced efficiently, like our hypothetical oranges, it'll end up being more harmful to the environment than food that's been efficiently grown and then flown in. Any non-native crop usually requires extra irrigation and stronger fertilizers, which add far more to a dish's carbon footprint than one lousy airplane trip.

Locations like the Pacific Northwest need more environment-harming fertilizer to produce the same amount of food grown in a sunnier place like New Zealand. Countries like the U.K., with limited open space, require more intensive farming techniques than those with bountiful space.

There is such a thing as a local diet that does more good than harm, of course: It just takes a lot of research, sacrifice, diligence, and careful planning ... which usually doesn't go hand-in-hand with that weed, regular co-op shopper. Long story short: Without reverting to an extremely well-researched native diet, which most 100-mile dieters don't do, we're better off just letting the foreigners feed us. Maybe we can do them a solid, though, and stop burning their food on our way to buy their stuff.

Or, alternatively, go freegan.

Driving Energy-Efficient Cars

The Idea

So ethanol might suck, but at least people who drive hybrid cars have our back, right? The virtues of the Prius and similar hybrids are obvious: They use an electric motor alongside a gasoline one, making them more fuel-efficient, so driving one will help the environment and save money on gas. It's win-win!

Take that, terrorism!

How We Half-Ass It

Once again, consumers here forgot about a single important detail: actually saving fuel. A 2009 study found that hybrid drivers drive around 25 percent more than other drivers, even when they share similar commute times. In other words, they get so cocky that their cars are saving them so much fuel that they go out and burn more fuel. This kind of vehicular half-assedness isn't the exclusive domain of Prius owners, however: In the last 40 years, American cars have become about 50 percent more energy-efficient. Progress, right? Not really: At the same time, the distance driven by the average car owner has doubled.

Economists have even given it a name: the rebound effect.

Economists love basketball almost as much as they love spreadsheets.

As a piece of technology becomes more efficient, our use of it goes up, too. So if we invent new building materials that mean it takes less energy to heat a house, humans respond by building giant new homes -- hey, with the money you'll save on heating, you can afford it! It's a bit like what happens on the Internet: Your speed goes up, but Web pages don't load any faster because everyone just starts adding 16 new types of Flash animation. And it's not new, either: The effect was first noticed among coal consumers in the 19th century. In other words, half-assing it is a long, proud, and storied tradition amongst our peoples.

Many purely diesel-powered cars are already putting hybrids to shame in terms of MPG achieved, but really, anybody who keeps his normal driving habits and owns a car that gets at least 75 percent of the fuel efficiency of a Prius (or about 38MPG) is technically better for the environment. According to the British Department of Transport, that's every single passenger car in the U.K. today.

Yet we still keep these around, presumably because they're just so damn sexy.

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