State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Being Pragmatic About the Transition to an Environmentally Sustainable Economy

We are in the midst of a transition to a renewable resource-based circular economy. It will take a long time to complete, but the process of change has begun. If your information sources are limited to politicians and those in the mass media business, you might not have noticed the start of this transition. The national media is missing the main story and devoting time to covering Trump’s effort to revive the dying coal industry. Instead of investing effort in the growing green economy, the Trump folks are trying to make it easier for extraction industries to pollute while they mine. The administration is also trying to weaken protections for endangered species, yet another indication of their inability to understand the economic value of ecosystems. Since there seems to be an endless audience for whatever Trump does, it’s easy to see why coal and anti-environmental stories dominate. But the factual story is that in the real world, economic life is moving in the other direction. Renewable energy, energy efficiency, modern waste management, new methods of water reclamation, electric vehicles and a growing green economy are indicators of the transition.

Technology has dramatically changed economic life over the past several centuries. First, agriculture became more automated and efficient. In 1900, 40 percent of our workforce worked in agriculture. Last year, that percentage had shrunk to about 1 percent. American cities used to be places where we manufactured goods, and shipped them along with food and raw materials around the world. Today, communications, retail commerce, education, finance, health care, entertainment, tourism and the arts dominate urban life. Last year, 80 percent of America’s GDP was in the service sector.

While we need to speed up the sustainability transition if possible, another transition is also underway, as the developing world, especially the 2 billion people in India and China, race to develop as quickly as possible. Just as development in the West included some foolish and short-sighted environmental errors, we are seeing similar disasters at a larger and faster pace in the developing world.

Progress in achieving economic development in the developing world, and of continued economic growth in the developed world, are political necessities for all the regimes governing in every nation. Unless a government is capable of the psychopathic brutality of regimes such as Syria or North Korea, they cannot maintain their power for long without economic progress. People like a clean environment, but they also like to eat and especially want to be sure their children are fed and healthy. While both goals are compatible in the long run, the wealth needed to buy clean-environment technology must first be accumulated before it can be deployed. This means the progress toward environmental sustainability, like economic development itself, will be achieved at different rates in different places. Our global community could help ensure clean development, with rich assisting the poor, but the ability of that community to act is not assured. So, we will see additional cases of governments accepting environmental damage in exchange for short term economic gains and political stability.

Progress toward sustainability takes time, and sometimes we see a process characterized by two steps forward and one step back. In the United States, politicians and pundits have made environmental sustainability an ideological issue, although I view it as an inevitable stage of economic development. Once parents know their children have enough to eat, they can and do worry about their health and wellness. A clean environment is part of that drive for wellness and health. When they can, people demand it. Making sure your family is healthy is not a matter of ideology. Connecting issues such as climate change and endangered species to local health is not as easy  as understanding the danger of orange air and brown drinking water, but once the obvious connections are made, people are more willing to learn about more complex issues.

The polarization of American environmental politics has been stimulated by industry lobbyists who make their money off of ideological conflict. Environmental advocates also feed off of the conflict. Together we end up in the never, never land of symbolic politics. Cities sue the oil companies for damages due to Hurricane Sandy. Students protest for universities to divest from fossil fuel investments. Without question, Sandy was made worse by climate change and fossil fuels are a major cause of global warming. But why blame the fossil fuel industry? You and I buy those fossil fuels from the oil companies. No one forces us to do it. We use fossil fuels because we like to travel, eat, heat our homes, run our computers and charge our smart phones. Yes, some fossil fuel companies deny the science of climate change, and that is sheer idiocy on their part, just as tobacco companies tried to pretend that tobacco didn’t cause cancer. So, we’ve seen this type of unenlightened self-interest before. Many people have learned to get by without tobacco, but energy is far more important to modern life. Let’s get real. No one is unplugging and no one wants to. Blaming it on the oil companies is (excuse the pun) a waste of energy. It also misses the point. Punishing the fossil fuel companies could destroy industrial capacity that might form the base for the renewable energy business. It is also hypocritical.

Agribusiness is another target of political battle. Many of these businesses have poor environmental records and waste valuable natural resources. They need to be subject to more rigorous regulation. But since we all depend on them to eat, we need to apply these rules carefully to ensure that industrial agriculture continues to feed us.

That is the point I am trying to make. Attacking business does not speed the transition to a sustainable economy. We should be building consensus and cooperation along with mutual gain, not declaring each other enemies and trying to win for the sake of winning. President Trump may be addicted to winning, but that doesn’t mean all of us have to define the world the way he does. The sustainable city that most of us will live in will be an exciting, dynamic, healthy and hopefully fair and equitable place. Its achievement is a goal that all of us should aspire to.

America’s political system is structured to reward the political center; the absence of proportional representation, federalism, checks and balances, and even the electoral college make it difficult to govern without a majority. In the past, you only achieved power by compromise and working with people you disagreed with. But the entrance of unlimited political money, voting restrictions that depress turnout, gerrymandering, and the rise of cable news as a profit center have turned extremist politics into a very lucrative business. It is difficult to govern from the center if the extremists in your party can deny you reelection by defeating you in a low-turnout primary. If your goal is for government to do nothing, you can now accomplish that goal without a majority.

There are some aspects of community and economic life that we can all agree on. We want the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat to be free of poison. We want to feel safe from crime and disorder. We want to leave our children a world that is at least as good as the one our parents and grandparents left us. An environmentally sustainable economy is needed to achieve all of these goals. We should not need to fight each other to reach them, but try to understand each other’s interests and engage in give and take. It is easier to demonize people who live and even think differently than we do. But here in America it is long past time to renew a conversation based on what unites us. We hear enough about the things that divide us.

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