Nov 212013

Sure, we already know it’s not easy being green. But how about selling green? Yep, pretty easy. That’s according to the Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, the star of this week’s podcast, “Why Bad Environmentalism Is Such an Easy Sell.”
Glaeser is an interesting scholar and a good conversationalist. You last heard from him in our podcast called “Why Cities Rock,” in which he discussed the many upsides of urban life: economic, culinary, intellectual, and environmental. (This was based on his book Triumph of the City.) His latest working paper is called “The Supply of Environmentalism”. Glaeser argues that since most of us are eager to do the right thing for the environment, we are vulnerable to marketers and politicians who offer solutions that aren’t as green as they seem:


Stephen J. DUBNER: Please identify yourself, name, rank, serial number, whatever version of rank and serial number you wish to convey.
Edward GLAESER: I’m Ed Glaeser, the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard where I also direct the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.
DUBNER: Okay, you’ve said that a few times before.
DUBNER: The short version is that Ed Glaeser is an economist at Harvard, and he studies a number of interesting things. But his obsession seems to be with the city. In fact we did another podcast with him a couple years ago, called “Why Cities Rock.” Glaeser looks at cities from a number of angles – how they deal with housing booms and busts, how they incubate ideas and wealth; how much cities pollute compared to suburban and rural areas. Glaeser argues that cities are in fact very green, primarily because if you live in a city you share so many resources with so many other people. So Ed Glaeser is what you might call an urban environmentalist. It is not, as you can imagine, an overcrowded field. So I was interested to see a new paper that Glaeser wrote, called “The Supply of Environmentalism.” What does he mean by that? The conversation starts here…
GLAESER: So I actually do believe that almost all environmentalists are motivated by relatively benign forces and they’re trying to do good for the world. And I do not think on net environmentalism isn’t a good force. I believe on net it is.
DUBNER: There’s a but, isn’t there? You’re just waiting for the but…
GLAESER: But I do think that in the sales pitch, in the persuasion process, inevitably decision rules get simplified. Inevitably we move things down to sound bites, we move things down to simple implications. And sometimes these just mean that we get results that are less than perfect. In some cases we can get results that are completely the reverse of what we wanted.


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