Monday, December 28, 2009

Could the Recession Be Environmentally Friendly?

The recession may have a positive twist after all. Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of people looking for work, and trying to hold onto their homes and feed their families—I don't discount any of that. But there may be benefits in the most unlikely of places.

A New York Times article from November reports that the sale of alligator skin products, such as luxury watches (the skin is used for the band) and bags, has all but disappeared. Alligator farming used to be a lucrative (though dangerous) business: Farmers harvested eggs from the wild, raised the alligators, and sold their skins to independently owned tanneries for millions of dollars in some cases, and also made a profit on the meat (sold to Cajun restaurants), and head and claws (sold to tourist shops). That all changed relatively quickly as high-end customers began to watch their pennies too, and demand for alligator products dropped. But alligator farmers aren't buying that it's all recession related. They've accused Hermes of establishing a monopoly and setting low prices for skins. Hermes has bought out many of the tanneries, so they supply most of the skins to other design houses, who claim that they cannot make a profit on what Hermes charges for alligator skins. (Hermes says it has only bought a third of all the available skins, and its aggressive buying is helping these farmers stay afloat.) This might be bad news for the farmers, but it sounds like good news for alligators, who are nonetheless protected as a valuable source of income for farmers in the southern United States. [Image Left: Faux leather bags for sale.]

I thought about these alligators as I surveyed the bags carried by my fellow commuters, and I began to wonder: if demand for these types of products have fallen as a result of new penny-pinching practices, then how else might the natural world might be affected. Here are some thoughts:
  • Reduced carbon footprint. Based on the deals being offered by the travel industry, it's safe to say that a lot of folks have passed on that vacation this year. A round-trip flight from New York to Orlando by airplane will net you about 0.31 tonnes of CO2. (I used the Carbon Footprint calculator to figure this out.) For those of you, like me, who don't have much of a sense of what that means, it's about 683 pounds of CO2. (I figured that out using a Google converter.) According to Carbon Fund, I could plant a single tree (cost: about $12.00), or donate approximately $4.00 to reforestation or renewable energy. I checked and the offers were about the same. For a single person it doesn't seem like much, but if you add up all the people who aren't flying, well, that could be a lot of CO2 that isn't being produced.
  • Less garbage. In a previous post, I noted the increased number of people carrying large bags with them on the subway and noted the number of people bringing in their lunches, carrying reusable water bottles, etc. I proposed that more people are "packing it in" and taking items with them while in transit rather than relying on the purchase of disposable items. It's not as though it has become difficult to buy a bottle of water or an umbrella if the rain suddenly catches you unawares, but why spend the extra dollar or five if you don't need to? The overall effect this may have is to reduce the amount of trash we produce. Stats over at The Good Human (hey, no one wants to be told, "Bad human!" and rapped with a rolled up newspaper) indicate that it can take up to 430 years for a plastic water bottle to biodegrade. If more people are carrying water with them as a means of saving money, then that's a lot of years (and space) not devoted to waiting for plastic water bottles to biodegrade. [Image Right: A coffee mug in transit.]
  • Less reliance on fossil fuels. Okay, this one might be wishful thinking, but I've definitely noticed an increase in the number of LIRR commuters when gas prices rise. These folks tend to disappear when the prices fall again, even if the decrease is slight.  So less gasoline consumption, means less demand, means less drilling and encroaching on wildlife habitats. Which sounds like good news for seals, polar bears, walruses, and penguins—somebody ought to send them an email.
The recession may also mean less funding for environmental measures and research as money is funneled elsewhere to help families in need, but in acting to curb our own actions and consumer appetites, it might also give the natural world a breather.

Do you think the recession could have a positive impact on the environment? To what degree? Have you noticed an increase in consumer conservation (e.g., reusable grocery bags, reusable coffee mugs) in your workplace/commute/neighborhood? Share your recession-related green stories below.

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