Thursday, December 6, 2012

Living Sustainably: The Rule of Halves

You've probably heard hundreds of tips on how to live more sustainably. Who can remember all of those tips, or even worse remember to do what they say? And the prescriptions sound complicated and time consuming. Many people feel overwhelmed when considering how to reduce their ecological footprint, so they throw their hands up in despair and give up on sustainable living. Don't despair! I have a simple guideline, a rule of thumb you can use to become twice as sustainable: cut everything you own and use in half! I call it the rule of halves. Move to a house half the size of your current house. Cut the number of cars in your family in half, and cut the size of your cars in half. Cut the number of miles you travel by car in half. Cut how much meat you eat in half. Buy energy star appliances that use half the electricity. Cut the size of your lawn in half. Cut the number of televisions in your house in half, the number of computers and printers in half, the amount of clothing in half. For most Americans these steps should be easy, because we currently have more of these things than we need. Don't throw away what you give up: donate it for others to use. And abstain from buying more stuff to replace the stuff you get rid of: you won't have room for it in your smaller house anyway. Soon you will realize that you don't need all of that stuff, and that your life is more enjoyable because you spend half as much time shopping for and maintaining stuff. People in Europe and Japan have half the ecological footprint of Americans, yet they have the same level of wellbeing and are at least as happy.

So be proud of your small house and your small car! Small is beautiful. If you follow the rule of halves consistently you will cut your energy and material use, your ecological footprint, and your costs in half and make your lifestyle more sustainable.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Does increasing taxes on the wealthy hurt the economy and lead to higher unemployment?

For years Republican politicians have claimed that increasing tax rates on the wealthiest, who are the "job creators," will hurt the economy and lead to higher unemployment rates. I decided to test these claims by collecting evidence.

The claim that higher taxes on the wealthy hurts the economy was recently tested by Thomas L. Hungerford in a 2012 publication of the U.S. Congressional Research Service ("Taxes and the Economy: An Economic Analysis of the Top Tax Rates Since 1945" CRS Report for Congress no. 7-5700 / R42729, Here is what he found: "There is not conclusive evidence, however, to substantiate a clear relationship between the 65-year steady reduction in the top tax rates and economic growth. Analysis of such data suggests the reduction in the top tax rates have had little association with saving, investment, or productivity growth. However, the top tax rate reductions appear to be associated with the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution. The share of income accruing to the top 0.1% of U.S. families increased from 4.2% in 1945 to 12.3% by 2007 before falling to 9.2% due to the 2007-2009 recession. The evidence does not suggest necessarily a relationship between tax policy with regard to the top tax rates and the size of the economic pie, but there may be a relationship to how the economic pie is sliced." In other words, the only definite outcome of decreasing taxes on the wealthy is to increase economic inequality, which has been shown to cause a host of societal problems.

The figure below from the 2012 CRS report shows that there is no correlation between the top marginal tax rate and economic growth as measured by real per capita GDP growth rate:


In a New York Times article published September 15, 2012, David Leonhardt ( asked "Do Tax Cuts Lead to Economic Growth?" and answered "no," presenting this chart to support his conclusion:


The chart clearly shows that the Bush tax cuts did not prevent the country from plunging into a deep recession. In fact there are many investments made by the federal government that are more effective than tax cuts at spurring economic growth, including funding of basic research, which leads to the development of new technologies for the market. For example, most of the technologies embedded in Apple's popular IPhone originated in federally-funded research (see, as did the Google Search Engine, which was an outgrowth of a National Science Foundation grant to Stanford University. We conclude that there is no evidence that increasing taxes on the wealthy hurts the economy.

Now let's address the second, related question: does raising the highest marginal tax rate lead to higher rates of unemployment? To answer this question I made a plot with highest marginal tax rate on the x-axis (independent variable, data from ) and average annual unemployment rate on the y-axis (dependent variable, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,


The chart shows that increasing income taxes on the wealthy does not increase unemployment; if anything, the unemployment rate goes down when tax rates on the wealthiest increase.

Many people don't realize that tax rates on the wealthiest declined dramatically between 1945 and 1990, and declined further beginning in 1995 to the lowest levels on record in 2005 (see figure below).


Yet recessions have repeatedly come and gone, as reflected in this chart from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing unemployment rates since 1948:


(from The unemployment chart looks nothing like the previous chart of the highest marginal tax rate, indicating there is no correlation between the two.

So why do Republican politicians keep claiming that lowering taxes on the wealthy will create jobs and grow the economy? I don't have data to objectively answer that question. I can only speculate that their motivation is political rather than economic: they receive large campaign contributions from wealthy donors who, in return, expect enactment of favorable tax policies.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

What is the root cause of denialism?

denialism (usually uncountable; plural denialisms)

  1. describes the position of those who reject propositions that are strongly supported by scientific or historical evidence and seek to influence policy processes and outcomes accordingly[1].

In recent years the messages of politically conservative groups in the US have become increasingly at odds with scientific findings. The latest example is the recent claim by US Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., that “legitimate rape,” in his words, rarely causes pregnancy. I initially thought this was a brain-addled individual making things up on the fly during a radio interview. However, I’ve since learned that this is the official position of American Right to Life, The American Family Association, and the Human Family Research Center, three anti-abortion groups (Dan Horn, “Science Suffering in the Debate Over Rape,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, 8/26/2012). The groups make this claim because they believe it will make it easier to pass legislation that bans abortion without exceptions for rape and incest, but the scientific evidence does not support their claim that rape is less likely to result in pregnancy. As in other current controversies involving social issues, conservative groups not only ignore scientific evidence when it doesn’t support their views, but make claims that are at odds with the evidence.

Increasing numbers of politically and religiously conservative groups are adopting this anti-science approach. The conservative John Birch society started the anti-Agenda 21 movement opposed to sustainable development and the anti-fluoridation campaign[2]. The Tea Party gave birth to the “Birthers” movement that claims President Obama is not a US citizen because he was born in Kenya, despite the overwhelming evidence that he was born in Hawaii. Currently the most important scientific claim that deniers dispute is that the Earth is warming due to release of the greenhouse gas CO2 during burning of fossil fuels, again despite overwhelming evidence supporting this claim.

How did this all start? I believe that conservatives embarked on the slippery slope of denialism beginning with the Creationist movement that arose in response to the scientific theory of evolution. Motivated by their religious beliefs, which are rooted in a literal interpretation of the bible, fundamentalist Christians either passively choose to ignore evidence of evolution or actively fight to stop the teaching of evolution in public schools. It seems that once people become accustomed to denying evidence, they become increasingly adept at it. No amount of evidence will convince active climate change deniers that climate change is occurring. Based on my personal observations (I would love to see a study that tests this claim), it seems that most climate change deniers are politically conservative, fundamentalist Christians who also deny the reality of evolution. Such individuals will crow about scientific findings that support their views, but will ignore or attack findings that are at odds with their views rather than change their views. This dogmatic approach is rooted in political ideology. Recent studies suggest that the only way to persuade climate change deniers to adopt climate change mitigation measures such as cap and trade is to convince them that even if climate change claims are false, mitigation measures will have a positive effect on social welfare such as greater technological and economic development[3]. While this may treat the symptoms of denialism, it doesn’t address the causes. What can cure the disease of denialism? Effective teaching of evidence-based science in public schools is a start, but society needs to find new ways to stem the spread of denialism, which is making our country less competitive and harming future generations.


[2] The John Birch Society also opposed the civil rights movement and promotes claims that the UN is plotting to take over the world.


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Does urbanization make a society more sustainable?

A recent iCreate Sustainability debate ( asked "Does Global Urbanization Lead Primarily to Undesirable Consequences?" In the "Yes" column is Environmental Magazine, whose writers "suggest that the world's cities suffer from environmental ills, among them pollution, poverty, fresh water shortages, and disease." So does urbanization increase or decrease levels of sustainability?

To answer this question we will use the ecological footprint, which is the best measure of sustainability. It is well known that cities have lower per-capita ecological footprints than suburban and rural areas. For example, citizens of Manhattan have the lowest ecological footprint in the U.S. (see Stewart Brand's 2009 book "Whole Earth Discipline"). Environmental problems may appear to be caused by urbanization because the environmental impact of humans is concentrated in cities as a result of high population density. If urban residents migrated to rural areas, their aggregate environmental impact would be greater. However, their impact would be less obvious because it would be spread out over a larger area. The concentration of environmental impact in urban areas leads to the misconception that cities are the cause of negative environmental impacts.

One important unanswered question: Does urbanization lead to higher fertility? This question is important because overpopulation is one of the primary reasons we are currently in a state of global ecological overshoot. The 2010 World Bank report "Determinants and Consequences of High Fertility: A Synopsis of the Evidence" states "Fertility is almost always lower in urban as compared to rural areas." (see So the evidence is clear: urbanization slows population growth and decreases the per-capita ecological footprint. Together these reinforcing effects greatly slow the rate of growth of the environmental impact of societies over time.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ineffective Consumer Guides: Energy Star Labels

I've heard for several years that Wal-Mart was becoming more sustainable, but a purchase I just made makes me doubt that. I bought a Haier mini-fridge for my daughter's college dorm. When I opened the box in her dorm I found the US EPA Energyguide label taped to the refrigerator, inside the box. The label showed that the fridge was at the high end of the cost range for similar models, meaning it is the least energy efficient. It bothers me that Wal-Mart is selling the most energy inefficient model, but it bothers me even more that the information was hidden inside the box. The label should be on the outside of the box so it can inform consumers; hiding it inside the box seems like a deliberate attempt to hide from the consumer that the fridge is not energy efficient. So who is at fault? Certainly Haier shares some blame for making such an energy-inefficient product and for placing the label inside the box. However, Wal-Mart sets the rules for their vendors, and their rules should include that the products they sell must be energy efficient, and that the Energyguide labels should be clearly displayed. Finally, the US EPA shares blame: their rules should require that the label be displayed outside the box or printed on the box.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Sustainability update: June 2012

It's been sixteen months since I last posted, and much has happened on the sustainability front. A huge positive development has been the transition from coal to natural gas in many US power plants. This has mainly been driven by historically low natural gas prices rather than environmental concerns, but I think it also results from the EPAs plan to impose more stringent emissions regulations on power plants. Sustainability continues to gain more publicity, and consumers are driving less and buying more fuel-efficient cars in response to gas price increases resulting from Peak Oil.

However, Americans have done little to change their consumer lifestyles. And the conservative backlash against environmentalism, especially in Congress and state legislatures, has only intensified. For example, the South Carolina legislature recently voted to prevent planning commissions from using sea level rise forecasts when making planning decisions. That's the first time I've heard of a political organization mandating that relevant information be ignored when making decisions. Even worse, the bill, which is blatantly anti-intellectual and anti-science, passed by a wide margin. Virginia is about to pass a similar law. And a recent study shows that people with high scientific literacy are actually more likely to be climate change skeptics/deniers, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of global climate change.

These events have finally convinced me that no amount of information will convince climate change deniers that we must act to prevent catastrophic climate change. I now accept that most people are capable of being deeply irrational on certain topics. We must place our hope in those who are still able to think rationally, who can still be swayed by the evidence and accept that we are moving toward a global environmental crisis. We must also appeal to those who are not so self-centered that they are able to consider the effects of their actions on the future well-being of their children. It doesn't help to be angry or frustrated with people we view as ignorant or unethical. We must accept that human beings are deeply flawed creatures, and hope that either God or chance will pull us through this crisis, despite our self-destructive behavior.