One of the most frustrating parts of being an environmental science major is realizing how much incredibly bad information is out there about environmental issues. People often believe they know what the best environmental decisions are, when they are actually ineffectual, complicated, or completely wrong. I really believe that a lot of people want to make decisions that are best for the environment, but they make decisions based on mistaken logic and incorrect information. The most common problem is the fallacy of the appeal to nature.
Many people believe organic food is better for the environment, but that’s not always true. Just because something looks and feels more natural, or even if it IS closer to a natural state, doesn’t mean it’s actually less resource intensive to produce or does less harm to the planet. The same is true for genetic modification; many people believe genetically modified foods must be automatically bad for the environment, but in some cases GMOs may be a great option to make food less resource demanding or more capable of dealing with expected results of environmental problems like water scarcity and climate change. Organic production and genetic modification are techniques – whether they are better or worse for the environment than traditional methods of food production depends entirely on how they are used. The the local food movement often appeals to these ideas this too, but local food is also sometimes better, sometimes worse, sometimes not much of a difference in terms of carbon footprint or the use of harmful chemicals. It can take a lot more resources to grow tomatoes in Minnesota in the middle of winter than to transport them from further south, but lots of people think local food is always greener.
This problem goes beyond food. Many people think that living in a more rural area is more environmentally friendly than living in an urban area. At first glance this feels like it should be true – cities often feel dirty, crowded, and full of consumption and waste. In cities the visible results of high levels of consumption are obvious, in ubiquitous dumpsters and constant car exhaust. On the other hand, a home in the country is surrounded by plants, wildlife, and clean air! How can a place filled with so much nature be an environmentally unfriendly decision?
It turns out that at least in terms of carbon foot print, city dwellers generally do better than country folks. When things like your work and the grocery store are closer to you, when the electricity you use comes from nearby instead of traveling long distances, and when your home shares a building with other homes you’re going to do a lot better in terms of your energy use. Of course there are individual variations in this (an urbanite who takes regular international flights is going to have greater impact than someone in the country who doesn’t), but that’s exactly the point – the naturalness of your home setting isn’t a good indicator of your environmental impact.
Food and home location are just two examples, but if you look at the way products are advertised as greener you will see this constantly. It would be handy if “natural” was a good shorthand way to tell what a good environmental choice is, but unfortunately it just isn’t that simple. A little more research and understanding is often necessary instead.