4 Sep 2009

Daniel Goleman at the Berkman Center

A few weeks ago, Daniel Goleman spoke at the Brower Center on ecoliteracy, the need for strong community standards, and education/knowledge as the cure for our ills.

An appreciative Berkeley audience gave him many ohhs and ahhs. Apparently, Goleman is quite the rockstar among eco-groupies. (They love The Story of Stuff, which is flawed agit/prop.)

I have heard about Goleman's ideas on eco-literacy and the impact that one person's change can have among a group of people. (I remembered his example of stopping to help a man, at which point a bevy of New Yorkers stopped, perhaps saving the man from hospitalization from hunger and dehydration...)

Goleman is a big fan of "knowledge is power" and spoke fondly of goodguide, a service that helps consumers choose among products. He is also a fan of life-cycle analysis, the process that identifies the "footprint" of a product from its raw materials, the machines used to assemble it, the shipping required to move it, etc.

(My favorite example of LCA shows that a steel water bottle does not "beat" plastic bottles until it's been used 500 times. How many of those are on your shelf?)

Although I am a big fan of education/information/etc.,* I think it is only effective for the 20 percent of people who care.** For the other 80 percent, the solution is PRICE, i.e., the "right" thing is the "cheap" thing. That's why I favor a carbon tax, higher prices for water, etc.***

Forget the goodguide -- just make "bad" things more expensive (through taxes on "bad") and let the market take care of things. Read Hayek to understand why.

Bottom Line: Ecoliteracy is a luxury. For the rest of us, I recommend eco-pricing.
* Oh, and let's not even get into problems with bribes and greenwashing. Just because a company is non profit does not mean that its employees will not lie and cheat for "the greater good" (or their good).
** My "20/80 Rule" is shorthand for an idea; I have no idea of actual shares...
*** I also think that prices are more accurate than activists, who may highlight a product that's en vogue (KleenKanteen is the new Fiji water) instead of sustainable. Better ideas are adopted much more quickly with prices.


  1. @David,
    I wish you would not be so shy and retiring and would let us know what your actual opinions are.


  2. 20/80? maybe in Berkeley.
    I would say 5/95 in the real world.

  3. I agree with you on the price thing- best way to send a clear signal, ceteris paribus.

    But when are all other things ever equal, aside from a microeconomics text?

    I think the big question is how those prices are set- exogenously in the tax code (or other fee setting law) or endogenously in a market place.

    How well do governments establish tax policies to meet their own known funding needs? Can you imagine a government that could correctly set a tax or fee that was designed to shape behavior so that a particular level of environmental performance could be achieved?

    I'll trust markets to set prices. I likely will not trust government to get the rules right, but absolutely will not trust them to create the rules and the prices together.

    Wrong prices are a symptom that things (water resources for example) are not well managed. Let's focus on the causes, not the symptoms.

    My $.02

    /end rant

  4. David Z – Your conclusion that a small % of folks care and are susceptible to education is doubtless correct. But you then leapfrog to the conclusion that the solution for the others is price. Pricing decisions are usually made by elected officials in one way or the other. They will respond to the demands of the 80% or so who don’t care and don’t want to be educated. How do we close that gap?

  5. @Jeff -- I agree that it's lower than 5%

    @David -- I'd like to see *some* prices >0. I agree that politicians often set the wring prices, but prices are more transparent than regulations (incl. C&T)

    @Jerry -- good point. But. If those 80% are "voting" to have price replaced by less-effective regulations, then they are really not smart (since the cost is much greater). I think that the 80% are *not* participating/are overwhelmed by the bribery...


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