The Myth of Being Too Poor for Sustainability

One myth regarding sustainability just never seems to go away: the notion that it is expensive. It came to the forefront again during this past US Presidential Campaign. Mr. Obama has expressed strong support for environment, something for which he should be commended. Instead, he was attacked for being impractical.

The American voters subsequently choose Obama in huge numbers, giving him a 365-173 electoral college victory and a mandate to follow through on his agenda. Now in seemingly every interview, the Obama team is being asked what they will sacrifice from their agenda in order to cope with the Economic Crisis, as if to say “we won’t really waste money worrying about the planet, right?”

This is the same sort of flawed thinking that undermined Kyoto’s effectiveness befrore it was even adopted. Perplexingly, the United States Senate refused to ratify it and subsequently George W. Bush withdrew the support of the Executive Branch as well, all in the name of staying competitive globally. It was this logic that caused India and China, two other monster polluters to be excluded from the Kyoto Protocol as well.

Generally, one justification is the assumption that sustainability is a luxury consumption good that is competing with more basic needs for a share of our budgets. This is categorically false. Sustainability is not inherently expensive. People see Priuses selling for above MSRP and say that they cannot afford to protect the environment, but there is a litany less trendy ways of environmental responsibility. Furthermore, sustainability is not a mere commodity that is bought and enjoyed. Living with consideration of the environment will improve life on Earth today and far into the future.

Some people insist that while it is not a consumer good, sustainability should be viewed merely as a potential investment. People in this camp reduce sustainability to a place to put one’s money with an eye towards expected future returns. Again, this fails to see the true nature of sustainability. I agree that we should be mindful of returns; after all, ethanol is the perfect example of getting caught up in the irrational exuberance and buzz-words and failing to see that it is arguably an energy and pollution cost. However, investments in sustainability can only be examined properly with cost-benefit analysis if externalities are properly internalized. After all, sustainability and environmentalism have effects beyond buyer and seller some of which transcend borders, so there must be incentives for agents to consider there effects on others (i.e. cap-and-trade or pigovian taxation).

It is true that if the credit market is allowed to contract without any guidance, it will mean less investment across the board, including sustainability projects, but we cannot allow this market failure (see this for how it might happen). However, even though investment plays a role, that’s not the whole story. Instead, as the name indicates, sustainability is always asking “is this behavior/law/project destructive to our future on this planet?” This is why this is not merely a competing concern in the budget, and it is not something that we should abandon because of economic hardship, but simply an idea. It should guide our public policy in a comprehensive way so that we emerge from this crisis not as a tired nation of decaying infrastructure and resources but as a nation that will lead the world into a lasting age of prosperity. (for more on how sustainability is crucial to economic recovery, see here)

Edited to add: For some insight into how the Obama administration is continually facing and resisting this myth see this blog post on another site.

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