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Acknowledging that it is not feasible to convert to 100% renewable energy overnight, transitioning represents a pragmatic problem that most are willing to acknowledge. The question that follows is what time frame is appropriate to expect industry to adapt.  In the United States’ concentrated production model, generating plants produce vast amounts of energy that is then distributed to individual households.  The construction costs of these large facilities are very significant and undertaken based upon capital planning models that rely upon relatively stable and predictable market conditions for decades into the future.  Compounding the complexity of capital planning is the period of time and commitment required to construct a generating facility.

While it is understandably seductive to argue that renewable energy adoption is the correct decision, particularly in light of the wide range of environmental and human health concerns, the initial enthusiasm is blunted when real world feasibility is considered.  There is not enough solar panels, windmills, or installation crews to enact overnight transformation of our energy infrastructure.

The question that follows is what timeframe is reasonable to compel action?

The answer to this question has frequently been ‘cap and trade’ scenarios that put a cost on activities that we wish to end.  While there are some detractors to ‘cap and trade’ solutions, particularly is the price high enough to provide sufficient disincentives for the activity, history demonstrates how well this approach works, notably sulfur-dioxide or commonly known as acid rain, in the 1980s and 1990s… it worked really well AND the reduction in emissions occurred faster than estimates.  The ‘cap and trade’ approach struck the right balance between regulation and marketplace incentives.  Regulation determined the goal, dramatic reductions in sulfur-dioxide emissions, yet left each firm able to adopt solutions that fit within their individual resource capabilities.

However, when does ‘cap and trade’ represent an unsatisfying solution?

‘Cap and trade’ works well when the industry is complex or serves a multiplicity of other contingent operations.  The factory or small business that is reliant upon the availability of electricity is best served by solutions that allow downstream organizations to adapt to new realities.  Additionally, if the industry operates with few alternatives available, then cap and trade appears a workable pathway to encourage product substitution and focused innovations on process efficiency.  If the fishing industry is overfishing an area, then reducing the harvest through rationing permits protects the natural resources of the seas and encourages the fisherman to find alternative sources of income.  The fisherman is unlikely able to adapt to a sudden complete cessation of activities, just as a farmer would find it difficult to liquidate their land and machinery, in a timely fashion, if the soil suddenly became depleted of nutrients suitable for agriculture.  As a result, we must be mindful that the economic approach to solving problems does not overlook the realities and concerns of those it affects.  If the local villager finds the means to make a living is by poaching endangered animals, and there are few alternatives for making a living, then we can understand why they risk breaking the law, even though we still condemn the practice.

When is the period for adaptation too long or unjustified?

In mandating that auto manufacturers focus their innovation efforts on increasing fuel efficiency, and not so much where to add a cup holder or unnecessarily increasing the hulking engine power of the urban, asphalt bound, SUV, we recognize that it will take time and effort to adapt, therefore setting the goal years into the future.  The future goal is based upon the premise that our behavior, driving, is not something we can feasibly alter quickly or are unwilling to abandon.  The premise lies in both the fact that many are unwilling to alter their driving habits and the systemic infrastructure that makes alternative transportation methods unfeasible or even dangerous, particularly locales that lack accommodation for bicycles.

Setting goals for industry to abide by should thus be rooted in considering the importance of:

1) The product in question

2) Capability to adapt.

The latter consideration is natural for most… but what of the former?

Soap is important for most to maintain hygiene.  Various types of soap and beauty products are aimed at delivering various aesthetic outcomes… younger looking skin, less acne, smoother wrinkles.

Many soap products contain gritty material that is intended to exfoliate dead skin cells and leave the user appearing more desirable. I am certain most readers are familiar with the bar soap Lava that contains a gritty substance, pumice, that aids in the cleaning of the dirtiest hands.  Lava soap is great for cleaning greasy hands, but I think few would use it on the face.  Therefore, there is a plethora of other products in the realm of soaps aimed at exfoliating.  Points of differentiation abound amongst soaps, color, ingredients, fragrances, promised outcomes from use, and even shape.

However, many soap products have incorporated micro sized plastic beads into their products to act as the exfoliating agent.  The upshot of using plastic beads is coloring, cost, and consistency.  You wash with the soap, then the suds and plastic beads disappear down the drain.

Soap is generally not a problem, except when there are externalities that compel consideration beyond the realm of individual cleanliness.  Anti-bacterial soap is a prime example of a product that appears on the surface as a wonderful additive component in the pursuit of sterile cleanliness, except that it is clearing the way for “super bacteria” to emerge that is impervious to the chemicals that kill off their competitors.  As a result, widespread use of anti-bacterial soap has the unintended consequence of endangering the general population, while serving to sterilize the particular individual.  So far, it is health officials appealing to the general public to discontinue the use of anti-bacterial soap that has resulted… yet the product remains widely available and in use.  There seems to be many scenarios when killing as much bacteria as possible is desirable, particularly in hospitals and surgery rooms when a patient is in a weakened or vulnerable state, and thus we do not aim to ban the product entirely.

Plastic pollution is nothing new… from landfills to oceans plastic is resilient and resistant to decomposition.   As legislative action is slowly acting to reform our behavior, through banning plastic bags or encouraging recycling, a recent “win” against pollution gives rise to questions of justification when it comes to adaptation.  As the Great Lakes becomes polluted with micro-sized plastic pellets from beauty products that once exfoliated the skin, the fish population appears unable to discern the pollution from food.  The danger to the fish population is significant, due to the fragile state of the ecosystem from invasive species, chemical pollution, and overfishing.

As NPR’s Cheryl Corley reports, Illinois state Senator Heather Stearns’ legislation aims to phase out the use of plastic beads in beauty products:

“Obviously, protecting the lake is hugely fundamental, not just to my district, but to the whole system here in Chicago,” says Illinois state Sen. Heather Steans, who represents a district along Chicago’s lakefront and supports the measure.

“We’ve got an agreed-to bill now that will, in fact, ban the manufacture of these by 2017, and [ban] the distribution of them in the state by 2018,” Steans says.

While generally cause for celebration, there appears to be little consideration of why we must wait an additional three years to phase out a product that is not crucial to human society and threatens the fish populations of the Great Lakes.  The New York state legislature appears to be more aware of the problem in proposing to: 

 “If pending legislation is signed into law, manufacturers will have until December of 2015 to phase out products with microbeads.”

This situation appears to lack any justification for why a danger to the marine ecosystem should have to wait until 2017.  The New York legislation, IF it is signed into law, still enables soap manufacturers to reformulate their products and work through inventory… so what is the justification for Illinois?

If there is no explicit justification for why a restrictive regulation should be delayed, then ethics would mandate one should be compelled to act sooner rather than later.

 

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