“The Enemy Is Us”

Day 22 Blog Post

The debate over whether or not environmentalism and economics can play nicely together is by now a memory of how bipartisan we need to be as a nation. There’s no need for contempt between the two because they can in fact be brought together as one – and it is this merging of environmentalism and economics that will be our salvation out of this trap we have dug ourselves into. The bottom line is we need to be more sustainable. There’s really no way to skirt around it. Sustainable development and the creation of a green economy is a necessity. So how do we do this?

In 1987 the Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs.” The emphasis is on our responsibility to not only ourselves in the here and now, but to the future generations. We’re so accustomed to the connotation of “growth” and “development” as good and necessary for a financially sound and prosperous market, and therefore lifestyle. We measure how well we’re doing as a nation – our prosperity – in GNP, or gross national product. Traditional policy revolves around the assumption that all nations should increase or maximize national economic growth or wealth – the Maximizing Assumption, which ignores ecological limits, treats certain goods as free (the commons, like clean air and water). However, the concept of GNP wasn’t originally introduced for this reason. It’s clear that people think in the terms of a good economic well-being = good national well-being… you’re nobody unless you’re buying and selling. But what’s pretty ironic is that studies have shown that we’ve surpassed the point where increased wealth leads to increased happiness. Making more money doesn’t make us happy anymore.

Free-market libertarian environmentalists would fight this. It’s people like Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobile, and Julian Simon who think that environmental problems are merely “engineering problems” and that we can simply find a solution and make tons more money off fixing it “engineer our way out.” An example of this is iron fertilization, the recent privately funded expedition to dump tons of iron sulphate into the ocean to produce the extra growth of algae which absorb the carbon dioxide and then drag it to the sea floor in their bodies once they die. It need not to be mentioned that dumping tons of chemicals in the oceans is contrary to any environmental endeavor, and that ideas like this are merely bandaids on a compound fracture. Anyway, economic optimists – people like Tillerson and Simon – who think that traditional economic solutions can fix these unprecedented and more grand-scale problems – believe in unlimited substitutionability. They think that the means to our needs, once depleted, can be effectively compensated by something else – “substitutionability.” They think that when one resource runs out, we can just find another to replace it. Obviously, if this is how the world worked, we’d run into the problem of vital resources always running out and then having to find something else to replace it. This is happening with oil now. The amount of physics laws this ideology breaks is embarrassing. Plus, to quote John Muir, “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds that it is attached to everything else in the world.” Geoengineering is no longer a sound crutch. To those familiar with the ever-inspiring Harry Potter series, saying that we can rely on unlimited substitutionability is like drinking unicorn blood.

However, substitutionability is a mental step in the right direction because it entails technological optimism. The trick, though, is to develop the right kinds of technologies (like solar, wind, the known list of renewable energy sources), and break free from the carbon based technologies and the idea of “unlimited” anything (nothing that comes from the earth is unlimited) that got us into this mess. And now, the added moral dilemma of leaving behind this mess, if not a bigger mess, for our future generations calls into question the moral standing of future people who do not yet exist.

There is a Native American concept called the “Seven Generations” principle. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve learned from being an Environmental Policy major as I’ve encountered its use as a blatant solution in many classes, I cannot stress how important it is that we adopt this simple rule into our own society.

“Every deliberation we make must be in consideration of the impact on the seventh generation from now.”

A number of western ethical theories have their own views on how we go about this issue. Libertarian economic optimists see that as long as human ingenuity mixes with a profitable motive, sustainable resources for an abundant life will be found. This sounds nice, especially in politics, but the laws of thermodynamics just won’t allow it to work. In fact Libertarians should read up on Barry Commoner’s 4 Laws of Ecology. Utilitarianism would ask whose utility do we account for and for how far ahead into the future? This brings up thoughts on overpopulation and how many people we should bring into this world. Communitarianism says that we’re morally bound to future generations by extension of their being members of the moral, and human, community. Kantian deontology would ask “should one will that everyone act in a way that treats the future of humanity with less than what we have now,” ensuring minimal happiness and ability for life and resources in the future? Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” would ask every person to imagine him or herself as a future person who will be worse off than we are now because of his or her ancestors’ depletion of natural capital. This (and some communitarianism) is probably the most convincing case, as it calls into question the preservation of the gains of culture and civilization. Surely no one can argue against that.

Because of our individualistic culture, we have a motivational problem with implementing policies that demand sacrifice for future generations. Ernest Patridge believes that “concern for the remote future is the result of normal processes of maturation and socialization.” The “self-transcending” concern for persons, communities, locations causes, artifacts, institutions, and ideals arises from the social origins of the concept of the self, the “objectification of values,” and the universal awareness of one’s mortality. In other words, we naturally worry about our future and progeny, but the traditional economic culture we’ve been living in has been slowly, in a way, undoing this part of our humanity.

What can we start to do to minimize our impact on future generations? Sustainable business, or “green business,” is “an enterprise that has no negative impact on the global or local environment, community, society, or economy; and it strives to meet the triple bottom line, of which there are four criteria. 1) Incorporate principles of sustainability into each of its business decisions, 2) supplies environmentally friendly products or services that replace demand for non-green products or services, 3) it must be greener than traditional competition, and 4) it must make the enduring commitment to environmental principles in its business practices. A good example of current strides in sustainability is the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification standard. There are six essential characteristics to the authentically sustainable business: 1) triple top-line value production, 2)nature-based knowledge and technology, 3) products of service to products of consumption, 4) solar, wind, geothermal and ocean energy, 5) local-based organizations and economies, 6) continuous improvement process. In short, a green business doesn’t just provide green things, it’s entire functionality must be green.

Basically, none of this is news. We’ve known about our impacts on the environment since the 70’s, and we’re only finding out more information on how destructive current practices are. This is a video of an amazing 12 year old girl, Severn Suzuki, speaking to the UN Earth Summit in 1992, imploring for a change in our ways a decade ago. We have most of the technologies we need to start the economic shift this very moment, what’s holding us back is our investment in them; as if it were some “bold” move to invest in solar energy. It’s actually even good business because these renewable resources like solar, wind, and geothermal are r e n e w a b l e. If you have an hour, this PBS documentary shows who’s really behind the misinformation campaign aimed at causing our society’s doubt in the truth of climate change…interestingly aired no shorter than a week before Hurricane Sandy hit. This video explains how a plentitude economy is our hope at a better future. There is literally no excuse for inaction.

I offer this analogy. If you drop a rock in a river, it makes ripples. There’s no way to not make ripples once you’ve dropped that rock – there’s no way to not cause harm by continuing the carbon-based economy. The ripples are indisputable, and recently, observable fact. The only excuse was their delay in being seen by the majority of people who have the agency to do something about it, but that’s not the case anymore. We need to stop dropping the rocks. Think of how much less a leaf impacts the water than a rock. Maybe the idea of thinking about future generations as people who don’t exist yet is the wrong way to conceptualize the problem. Think of what you want for future you, because you exist; and people like you who will only exist because of you are in danger. How does that make you feel? As an organism on planet Earth, you are biologically concerned about your offspring – an extension of yourself. So all this convoluted and dry thought of ‘what do we do about the future,’ further bound by political talk, is morally the wrong way to view the issue of protecting our future. In the end, it was always us who were our own problem. Do you really want to be known as those ancestors who ruined everything?

Our Economy’s Dirty Laundry

Day 21 Blog Post

Any talk of the environment thus far has been unavoidably coupled with economics. Mention of environmentalism or “going green” would seem to be tangled up with either a diminishing of the economic system, loss of jobs, or – more rooted in actuality – revamping of the economic system. Our economic system is notorious for its adherence to corporations, “big business.” Corporations are driven by the vast engine of consumer satisfaction and are also responsible for big time environmental destruction. One need not even mention the Exxon Valdez spill in the Prince William Sound, or the American “hamburger habit” that lives off a continuous flow of South American beef acquired by the burning of millions of acres of ancient rain forests. The existence of these corporations depend on maximizing profits, which leads to continuous growth (the impractical golden rule of economics), which leads to the encouragement of more consumption, which we all know leads to larger landfills and more pollution and so on and so on.

Traditionally the environmental movement has sought to free the rain forests and protect endangered species, but a large group of disenfranchised individuals seems to have been overlooked. Our economic system perpetuates archaic forms of racism and injustice towards people of low socioeconomic status. A relatively new and equally as important sector of environmentalism comes into play – environmental justice. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states:

Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

More recently corporations have been charged with generating environmental racism, the “deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste facilities.” It has been found that there is a pattern of placing hazardous facilities in black and Native American communities,” as well as dumping hazardous wastes in third world countries. Libertarian pioneer Milton Friedman claims the goal of corporations is to make profit, and that any other agenda would be spending someone else’s money “to promote a social objective.” Friedman also thinks that taxation is a form of unjust socialism, so that’s as far as his input can be valued. Despite how unpopular it might appear in a polity fueled by corporate aid, the job of government is to protect the people. So, our society has enacted laws and regulations to protect people from injustice – a concept that makes big business and libertarians cringe. But what’s twisted is that now the laws might not even be enough to keep corporations under control. Third world farmers are displaced from their homes via starvation or moved off by pressure or force from big business, a process that is further begotten by corrupted government in bed with such big business. Another huge problem in our solidifying global society is the psychological fear of falling down a class; and this quietly fuels the unsustainable system of “continued growth.”

What’s more is that in our country there’s the almost ignorant fluffing off of the idea that racism still exists. Racism seems like a problem that was tackled and conquered by Martin Luther King, a problem that our parent’s generation felt. My president is black, how can racism still be around? Surely racism doesn’t exist now, and if you are racist, then socially you’re weird, hateful, and out of the loop. To be accepting of all races and people is in vogue. This is all wonderful, but somehow the racism that does still go on is glazed over by this idea that racism doesn’t exist.

Atgeld Gardens is a housing project in Chicago where 10,000 residents, mostly African American, live surrounded by sources of intense pollution on every side. The area is plagued by one of the highest cancer rates in the nation, and atrocities like rampant disease, and birth defects such as babies being born without heads and limbs. This community is a testament to continued environmental racism. Statistically, three out of every five black and Hispanic Americans lived in communities with uncontrolled waste sites near by. The National Minority Environmental Leadership Summit met to develop a comprehensive and tangible national agenda of action that will help reshape and redirect environmental policy-making in the U.S. to fully embrace the concerns of minority Americans. A national pattern was found in which “race proved to be the most influential variable tests in association with the location of commercially hazardous waste facilities.” Companies dump in ethic neighborhoods to avoid the lawsuits they would incur if they dumped in white communities because the poor communities are figured to be legally and politically powerless, or they may not know they can do anything about their living conditions. The corporations perpetuate this institutionalized problem among lower income communities who come to believe that they can’t do anything about their situation. “Wherever you find working class, ethnic communities, you find environmental injustice.” Needless to say, this is one of the darkest corners of American civilization.

The sociological effect that our economy has on lower income people is just another reminder of direct how our relationship to the earth really is. They can’t “vote with their feet” and just move out, like first class citizens can. And even still, the proposition that people should just move out of a neighborhood that has a tainted ecosystem adds insult to injury. Should we even settle to see people land and homes be allowed to such degradation? Peggy Shepard, a leader of WHE ACT (West Harlem Environmental Action), says “we need to fight for environmental protection or the land we seek might not be of any real value once it’s returned.” Again adding more insult to injury, Indian reservations are seen as good dump sites by firms because “they are considered sovereign entities not subject to local or state environmental restrictions.” One Indian reservation near a nuclear waste producer in Oklahoma reports nine-legged frogs, four-legged chickens, two-headed fish, and babies born without brains or eyes. The fact that we let this occur without guilt or repercussion -just another externality – is horrifying.

There have been watershed events in the environmental justice movement. “Mother of the Superfund” Lois Gibbs’ triumph in getting national recognition for her battle against the state to get 21,000 tons of toxic waste removed from her town of Love Canal and her eventual creation of the Superfund Act. In North Carolina, 500 arrests for the non-violent civil disobedience of the 1982 protesting against a new toxic landfill and toxic soil laced with the carcinogen polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) in an African American community. Little by little, grassroots movements like these gain more attention and put more light on the issue that was once just seen as the trivial consequence of the big business system.

The remnants of historically institutionalized racism and oppression of non-whites and lower income people coupled with the massive expansion of the petrochemical industry since World War II churn out this social phenomena of the location of lower income, segregated communities to carry the burden of living in these sordid conditions. This is environmental injustice. It is unjust to the people, unjust to the environment, and also unjust to those who feel the effects that a contaminated ecosystem brings to other ecosystems and other areas nearby. Those people are you and I. The problem of environmental injustice may be coming to light, but it also illuminates the deep-seated root of unsustainable practices and an intrinsically faulty materials economy. The solution is, by initiation of grassroots movements (Majora Carter is a wonderfully inspiring pioneer in this field), more sustainable infrastructure, more community involvement, more education, more governmental involvement and restriction where needed, and better economic planning. The idea that it is “anti-American” to “impose morals and values” about the environment on business and other people might be the most toxic mentality of them all. This goes beyond any one person’s needs or wants or beliefs, but is rooted in science and reality. Too long has the top down approach reigned supreme, now it’s time to fix the problems it’s caused from the bottom up.