Some years ago in his widely popular book, the Armchair Economist, Steve Landsburg included an essay entitled 'Why I Am Not An Environmentalist.' (you can find a copy of the essay here). He states:
"Economics is the science of competing preferences. Environmentalism goes beyond science when it elevates matters of preference to matters of morality....The underlying need to sacrifice, and to compel others to sacrifice, is a fundamentally religious impulse"
Take for instance recent headlines here and here indicating that the USDA and HHS are considering changing federal dietary guidelines that include recommendations for less beef based on so called environmental concerns instead of setting science based guidelines based purely health and nutrition. You might say, well, making a choice that is less energy intensive and one with a lower carbon footprint or involves fewer industrial chemicals or inputs might seem better for the environment. However, when it comes to environmental sustainability, the absolute amount of energy we use, or pollution we create is not necessarily the relevant metric. Sustainable choices are those that allow us to consume today without compromising the consumption set of future generations. This is an inter-temporal optimization problem that considers both costs and benefits, and the optimal allocation is based on a comparison of marginal costs and benefits across time vs. absolute levels.
Rigorous science might tell us with some level of uncertainty some measurable impact of dietary changes or CO2 emissions on future generations. But, to know if what we are getting in the future is larger than what we are giving up today, we have to discount future benefits (put them in today's terms). Then we can compare benefits and costs and talk about some optimal quantity of beef. (a big unknown in this is forecasting future impacts and getting the correct discount rate- see Doing Nothing: A science based policy prescription for climate change mitigation). It may be true that rigorous science tells us about the absolute level of energy use or emissions differs across an array of consumer products and production processes, but it does not tell us so much about relative trade offs across time.
And exactly how do we pin down the 'costs' of less beef consumption today? Its more than not getting a double cheeseburger or steak the next time you eat. Its more than fewer head of cattle going to slaughter or lost revenue from grain sales next year or the year after. Over the years huge investments have been made in technologies that have improved the efficiency of beef production, leading to significantly lower levels of water, feed, energy consumption, and pollution; especially greenhouse gas emissions. If people took these guidelines seriously, what does that mean for future investments and technological progress? It might turn out that slightly lower levels of consumption now could mean lower trend but absolutely higher levels of consumption of beef tomorrow (as the population grows), but without the potential green innovations that are on track today if current policy discourages those investments. That means tomorrow's cheeseburger comes with a larger environmental footprint than otherwise even if we are all eating less beef overall than we otherwise would have. Already government policies and attitudes toward beef are impacting these trends. The recent stigmatization of green technologies like finely textured beef (ignorantly maligned as 'pink slime'), as well as the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics and growth hormones is leading to beef going to market that is less green than it other wise would have been.
How do you net out the overall impact of this? I have no idea, but that is the great thing about markets. As individuals, no matter how informed we think we are, our knowledge is limited and incomplete. The purpose of markets is to exploit the collective knowledge of millions (billions) of people in order to get the 'correct' levels of production and consumption. Even if we didn't have to properly discount future benefits to compare to current costs, the limited knowledge of a few economists, scientists, and policy makers is not sufficient to determine the optimal quantity of any good in a society, even if they imagine they can design a mechanism that accounts for the gaps or externalities that they think current prices are missing the mark on.
So, what are environmentalists and state and local governments to do in the face of lacking empirical evidence to support their personal beliefs about environmental policies and positions? They are certainly free to evangelize as private citizens. They can evangelize about how recycling and eating less beef is necessary because it serves some unquantifiable greater good, and they can even lay guilt trips on non-believers. They can even take up collections and ask for donations. Unfortunately they do a lot more. They can actually force you to pay to support certain quasi-religous practices or in the case of recycling may even force you to participate in their rituals or pay a penalty (or should I say penance ). Your tax money might be required to pay for recycling bins, or your local school might spend extra to add local food to its menus, promote rituals like 'meatless Monday,' or they may simply post nutritional 'commandments' that we are all encouraged to follow, and that will impact multitudes of government programs and personal choices. As Landsburg says:
"....we face no current threat of having Christianity imposed on us by petty tyrants; the same can not be said of environmentalism. My county government never tried to send me a New Testament, but it did send me a recycling bin."