The Political Dimensions of Sustainability

Too often when people think about the concept of sustainability it is associated with ‘the environment’ or some related idea, like climate change. But the environmental consequence of non-sustainable behavior are symptoms of economic and social causes. Similarly, when we think about specific environmental problems, we (the proverbial ‘we’ as in ‘global society’) tend to think in terms of addressing the specific causes of those environmental problems. Acid rain was an environmental symptom caused by industrial pollution. The weakening of the Ozone layer was an environmental symptom of CFC usage. We (again, the proverbial ‘we’) were fortunately able to take great strides in reining in the most damaging causes of environmental problems in these two cases. Critics of climate change ‘alarmists,’ environmental groups, and other pro-sustainability activists are right to point out that society has found in a way in the past to cope with environmental damage. The position of many in this camp is to simply let the market work. However, there are two fundamental flaws with this line of thinking and they both have to do with the political dimensions of sustainability.

First, market solutions work best when there is an alternative product, what economists call substitutes. In the case of CFCs, there were cost-competitive alternatives to CFCs that were relatively quickly market ready once the Montreal Protocol regulating CFCs was agreed to in 1987. Unfortunately, in the case of one of the biggest contributors to global climate change, there is no economic substitute. I am, of course, referring to petroleum. Sure, if we fast forward 40 years to a point when there are 9 billion people on the planet and we’re well past peak oil production, the laws of supply and demand state that the price of petroleum will reach an equilibrium that would likely make renewable energy sources economically competitive. But that obscures another political fact: the real price of petroleum right now is artificially low for consumers, at least in the US. When you factor in what economists refer to as externalities, a cost that is not transmitted through prices. In the case of petroleum, the costs of environmental damage associated with the oil industry and the costs of US foreign policy (soldiers, wars, etc.) are easily identifiable externalities. There’s a reason Europeans drive smaller cars than Americans and that’s primarily because they pay a lot more at the pump than we do. Why? Very simply, European governments tax petroleum much more significantly than US governments to reflect the cost externalities. Essentially, as with so many problems in the US, we’ve chosen to instead pass those costs on to future generations. Oil is but one obvious example of a market-based approach to sustainability. But how much longer will we able to do this given alarming rates of population growth, accelerating environmental damage, and increased global awareness of sustainability issues in a technologically democratized world? This is at the core of my second point on the political dimensions of sustainability.

Globalization, as a concept, is often thought of as possessing four different dimensions: economic (global trade), political (international institutions and non-governmental organizations, both formal and informal), cultural (often derogatorily termed Americanization), and technological (basically, access to information). Globalization is a massive subject and I don’t want to go off on a tangent exploring it right now, but I will echo what one of the most preeminent thinkers on the subject, New York Times columnist and author Tom Friedman, regularly says: We live in a globalized world. What does that mean? Basically, everything and everyone are interconnected. Now, Friedman has been rightfully criticized for making sweeping generalizations about the scope and extent of globalization’s reach, but he’s right on with his position vis a vis globalization and the environment. If you read his column you know he is a huge proponent for a government-led investment in renewable energy. He’s also quick to point out that the time to act is now. We already live in a world that is “Flat, Hot, and Crowded” (the subject of one of his recent books).

Another thinker who makes a powerful case for urgency and the disruptive effect of the climate crisis on the global economy is Paul Gilding. I watched a TED Talk by Gilding, which inspired me to sit down at write this post. Gilding points to global debt-fueled economic growth and inefficient democracies as the causes of an overloaded planet that is ‘eating itself alive.’ We’re already at about 1.5 times a sustainable rate of consumption of resources with massive population and economic growth on the horizons in the coming decades. Gilding asks us to imagine a world left to market forces: China, India, and Pakistan at war due to food and water shortages; The Middle East’s fragile government institutions dried up of oil revenues; and our own agricultural system stressed to the point of failure that leaves the supermarket shelves bare.

We don’t know exactly what will happen and, to some, these types of Malthusian doomsday predictions may come off as wildly overstated. I’m not saying that I have anywhere near the level of knowledge to make prognostications. But I am saying this:¬†Eventually the environment will lash back at our misuse and abuse and we’ll find ourselves in a totally new economic reality. I would rather take action now, when the costs and consequences are lower. As individuals, many of us would, but we stare in the face a classic collective action dilemma: Why should I alter my behavior when there are 7 billion people on the planet who all need to change behaviors? Well, politics is the art of the possible and political solutions are the only way out of this mess. We can’t do it alone. What we desperately need is for this type of progressive thinking to move out of the realm of ideas and into realm of political action.