I’ve been meaning to write this piece for a while — now seems to be the time. It’s more about American culture, or perhaps human nature, than anything else. It is most certainly an issue everywhere, but I don’t think there’s a country on earth where it’s a bigger problem than in the U.S.
For some reason, we seem to be obsessed with thinking about the prices of things before almost everything else. Not in all situations — humongous iPad sales show that cool is still a big factor in some cases as well. Paying $10,000 more a year for a car when you could bike or use transit instead is another example of an exception to the rule. But, generally speaking, when we consider something, we focus on price first. You may think this makes sense, but in many situations, I think it’s clear that it doesn’t.
First of all, price IS NOT cost. For example, the price of solar may be higher than the price of coal today (note: for some, it may actually be cheaper already — look into it), but the cost of solar is lower for most or all of us. Why? Because the price of coal does not include the billions or trillions in health costs attributed to coal. It does not include other environmental costs. It does not include the cost of suffering from coal-related cancers. It does not include the cost of suffering from climate-change-related disasters. It does not include the rising cost of food from climate-change-related ‘natural’ disasters.
The same goes for electric vehicles over gas-powered vehicles now.
The same goes for the cost of healthy versus unhealthy food.
But, we choose to be polluted. We choose to get cancers. We choose to have less national security and sacrifice the lives of our fellow citizens rather than change our transportation options.
Basically, we seem to be too bad at examining costs (and our government doesn’t do enough to adequately adjust the price of products to internalize health, national security, environmental, and other costs) for our own good.
Just putting it on the individual today, though, it’s our own responsibility to do a little research and choose a better life for ourselves — one with less suffering and disease, and one with more quantifiable and unquantifiable net benefits.
Aside from putting a cost on things like clean air, clean water, and a healthy body, it also makes sense to acknowledge that some such things cannot truly have a price tag — they are necessities for a “good” life. They are a base need. How can we say it makes more sense to burn coal today since it’s slightly cheaper, while people suffer and die every day from the horrible effects of coal mining and the burning of coal?
And one more thing: we often make a big deal of price without thinking about where that extra money we’re paying goes. Does it go towards creating more jobs, rather than sending more money into a highly automated industry in which the rich are getting richer? Does it go towards local, small-scale businesses versus giant multi-nationals, industrial farms, or hostile countries where the citizens and leaders hate you? Spending money isn’t only about you, it’s also about who or what you support….
I know some readers (and commenters) sometimes get frustrated when we focus on the price of solar or wind versus coal or nuclear sometimes. I certainly get a little frustrated having to write in those terms sometimes, and appreciate the reminders to look beyond price. But I think the truth of the matter is, we’ve got two issues to tackle — 1) we need to try to get people to see and incorporate more of the costs of dirty energy more often, since that already makes renewable energy a better option (and since people do think in money terms so much), and 2) we need to promote the idea that everything isn’t about money, since we have basic necessities and even desires that trump a small difference in the price of one option over another.
These are things I think I do every day, but once in a while it’s good to spell that out rather than imply it or stick a few lines into a story about another topic.
Take home point: don’t be too cheap for your own good.
Image via SS&SS
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