Some further thoughts on magic pony plans


David Roberts criticizes magic pony plans, the tendency of some environmentalists to reject incremental measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as not good enough. You can tell you’re dealing with a magic pony plan whenever you hear the phrase “what we really need to do is” followed by, well, a magic plan to fix global warming.

I refer to magic pony plans less entertainingly as the “distraction theory” of environmental policy. The basic notion is that Plan X is a distraction from the much better Plan Y, and Plan X is therefore actually worse than doing nothing at all, because its fools-gold shininess somehow steers us away from the true prize.

Needless to say, carbon offsets come in for this criticism all the time, but offsets are by no means the only seemingly positive development to receive such treatment. Remember the good news about plug-in hybrids, a commercially viable technology that could fairly easily shave off half a gigaton of U.S. carbon emissions by 2050? Many argue that this is actually bad news, because a switch to plug-ins will allow us to continue our car-dependent lifestyles. Plug-ins may get 180 miles to the gallon, they say, but they’re a distraction from the true solution of dismantling the suburbs and trading cars for light rail and bicycles.

You can see the problem here. Dismantling the suburbs is not a realistic policy option, and even if it were, it’s not really clear why we couldn’t simultaneously pursue plug-ins. Many people, myself included, are hopeful that we will see improved urban planning and transportation policies, but don’t see these policies as competitive with other solutions. Global warming is practically the definition of a problem that requires concerted action on many fronts.

Nevertheless, it’s also easy to see why distraction theory remains popular. It’s fundamentally a cheap argument, in the sense of being easy to make and largely impossible to disprove. No matter what the objective merits of a policy, you can almost always accuse it of being a watered-down version of some other plan that goes even further.

Which isn’t to say the distraction theory is always necessarily wrong. Corn ethanol really might be a massive boondoggle that sucks funding and attention away from worthier environmental measures. Looking further back in history, you can make credible arguments that some very basic elements of, say, our tax system or health care system are historical accidents that reflect the exigencies of the times in which they were created. Path dependencies can be quite strong; it’s hard to unwind large-scale policy decisions.

I don’t think that even these examples offer much support for distraction theory, though. Corn ethanol may be a distraction, but it also happens to be flawed on the merits. The issue isn’t really that corn ethanol fails to be good enough. It’s just not very good, period.

On the other hand, our tax policy is undoubtedly far from optimal, but it does fulfill its basic function. In some obvious sense, it is “good enough,” although we should seek to improve it.

Much the same, I think, can be said for many environmental policies. They are partial solutions, incremental improvements, whatever. Keep improving them, add them together, and hopefully we’ll get where we need to be.

Footnote 1: it really is worth clicking through to the Roberts piece, particularly because the comment thread has some interesting arguments pro and con.

Footnote2: ponies have become at this point a standard blogospheric shorthand for wishful thinking of any variety. If you haven’t, it’s worth reading the original blog post that launched the phrase (borrowed in turn from a Calvin and Hobbes strip). It’s a masterpiece of the form.

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  1. Rob - August 12, 2007

    “Perfect is the enemy of Good” is a common phrase tossed around in software (and other?) design; it’s the same idea in a different form.
    Even though I hope we abandon most (present, but IMO probably future as well) large-scale biofuel production, that doesn’t mean they were wrong to try; without trying to scale them up we might never have known for sure that certain things would prove true or false. That’s what research is, and it’s good to try, but you have to be prepared to cut your losses when you find a bad path. That’s politically hard, especially in the US where any change of view is “flipflopping.”

  2. Patrick - September 14, 2007

    Hopefully this isn’t too late to post about this article. Excellent job of summing up the arguments that flew back and forth on the hybrid post, Adam!
    The issue with corn ethanol is not an issue that pertains to biofuels as a whole. The abysmal yield of fuel compared to what goes into growing the corn in the first place is what really sets off warning bells. Worse yet, the US exports a huge amount of corn to the rest of the world (I think I read an article that said 60%), much of which is 1) not that rich, and 2) uses corn as a staple. Places such as Mexico are consequently seeing astronomical rises in price that they can’t afford, and for absolutely no good reason. Other biofuels definitely have more potential than corn. I can’t wait until someone figures out how to perfect the harvesting of oil from algae, which is harvestable year-round, takes up no arable land, and can produce ten to a hundred times more fuel per acre per year than virtually any other biofuel crop. It certainly seems worth investing some R&D money in exploring.

  3. Anonymous - February 23, 2009

    I love ponys

  4. Adam Stein - February 23, 2009

    That’s funny, so does my colleague Peter Freed. He likes to brush their pretty manes.