Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Didn't think that through all the way....

Two separate stories remind me yet again that one should think all the consequences through very carefully before acting.

First, Professor Friedman at Religion Clause (himself via Wall of Separation) wrote about the policy of Albemarle County, Virginia schools to allow religious non-profit organizations to distribute information via "backpack mail" (I guess what we used to call dittos). The school district enacted this policy at the behest of conservative Christian families in the county. However, the policy requires that all religious non-profits be granted equal access to backpack mail- and a Pagan group affiliated with the local Unitarian-Universalist church (full disclosure- I consider myself to be UU) is using the system to distribute messages about their upcoming holiday programs.

Needless to say, the Christians down there in Jefferson's county are not pleased.

Second, Volokh Conspiracy noted that the growth in renewable energy- in this case specifically biodiesel- is resulting in slash and burn destruction of the Borneo rainforests to make room for the crops that can be made into fuel. Although I could not read Volokh's source story (I'm a public defender- I can't afford to subscribe to WSJ!) , a quick run through Google News found this story from New Scientist- written over a year ago.

Rising demand for green energy has led to a surge in the international price of palm oil, with potentially damaging consequences. "The expansion of palm oil production is one of the leading causes of rainforest destruction in south-east Asia. It is one of the most environmentally damaging commodities on the planet," says Simon Counsell, director of the UK-based Rainforest Foundation. "Once again it appears we are trying to solve our environmental problems by dumping them in developing countries, where they have devastating effects on local people."
Both of these stories- though totally unrelated- remind me once again that laws are enacted blindly, with little thought about the long term effects, similar to the point I was trying to make in my post about the mortgage deduction. If the conservative Christians could not foresee that people of differing faith could take advantage of the system, if the EU could not foresee that requiring biofuels could result in a strong enough rise in demand to require new plantations, then would it not have been better to have done nothing in the near term and think through the implications?

Last year, I was toying with the idea of running for my state legislature on the theory that the Pennsylvania state legislature is so horrible (and it is), that I could do better by default. I also had some ideas, too. I lost my father to lung cancer, so I had the notion that we could subsidize farmers to grow soy for biodiesel instead of tobacco (it may not be known widely, but Pennsylvania is a major tobacco growing state). Pennsylvania tobacco is mostly grown for cigars, which do not have fully the same public health implications as cigarettes, but it would be a symbolic if not entirely substantial step in the right direction that deals with both energy and public health policy, killing two birds with one stone.

However, I spent almost no time thinking about the net effects, say, 20 years down the road. The tobacco industry here in Pennsyltucky is small, and there are but a couple biodiesel plants in the state. Would rural communities suddenly get industrialized as new plants got built? Is diesel production likely to result in dangerous emissions themselves?

The point is that even good ideas have bad repercussions. The bad ideas- for example, allowing churches, Pagan or Christian alike, to distributes messages in the public schools- can have disastrous ramifications. It is hard to imagine the backpack mail thing will become a disaster, but the quest for biofuel has that potential because when they had the idea- a good one- they didn't sit down to think it all the way through.

Policymaking is complex, and cannot be created to fit on a bumper sticker. It is important that we look for renewable energy sources, but a more thoughtful approach is required in anything as important as energy policy.