White lies are well-meaning and innocuous. When we tell them, we feel justified or excused—a subtle moment of dishonesty that promotes a better, kinder world. But not all little lies are white. Some are green.
We read and hear “little green lies” everywhere: “we are running out of landfill space,” “population growth must be controlled,” and “economic growth and the environment are incompatible.” They are becoming as common as white lies, but their effects can be very different. Many of these perceived environmental threats are simply misunderstood, at best, or deliberately misleading, at worst. Such lies deserve closer scrutiny so that their significance in directing environmental public policy can be better understood.
Agriculture vs. Environment
Consider the following little green lie: Modern agricultural practices always conflict with the environment. Environmental advocates, including groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, try to convince consumers to buy organic or nongenetically modified food—or, better yet, to grow their own. But is this type of agriculture more environmentally friendly than modern agriculture? Not necessarily. Herbicides, for example, allow minimal tillage farming that reduces soil erosion, and genetically modified (GM) crops require fewer insecticides. But advocates believe that they are preventing people from harming the environment and themselves if they can instill the little green lie.
Little green lies may also be good for their tellers. If more individuals believe the agriculture-versus-theenvironment story and buy organic, GM-free food, the environmental advocates are better off because they see more people contributing to the achievement of the environmental goals they hold dear.
A proponent may also be an organic farmer whose produce will be in higher demand if organic food is embraced by consumers. The belief that organic food trumps competing conventional food, despite a higher price, generates an improvement in organic farm income and wealth.
By JEFF BENNETT, 2011 PERC Lone Mountain Fellow, is a professor of economics and the director of the Environmental Economics Research Hub, Crawford School of Economics & Government at the Australian National University. Bennett is a distinguished fellow of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society and also a member of the Academic Advisory Council of the Centre for Independent Studies.