‘Weak’ versus ‘strong’ sustainability

The dominant worldview among western and ‘developed’ nations is that of the growth paradigm: unbounded economic growth is the key to continuously raising living standards and prosperity around the globe. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious, even to some in government, that the idea of infinite economic growth in a finite world is an outdated worldview.

Despite collective failure to set globally-binding CO2 emission standards, some countries have individually begun to embrace various conceptions of ‘sustainability.’ How societies and governments define sustainability has far-reaching implications for the types of decision making tools and policy measures they can implement. As it turns out, not all conceptions of sustainability are created equal.

Conceptions of sustainability

Worldviews, decision making tools, and policy approaches can be loosely categorized as either ‘weak’ sustainability or ‘strong’ sustainability. It is a purely academic exercise to categorize them as such, but it does shed light on the larger value systems that inform individual behavior and national policy.

‘Weak’ sustainability is still a fundamentally anthropocentric orientation, with social equity and environmental protection regarded as subordinate to sustainable economic growth. The focus is often on creating more efficient supply-side economies through integrating ‘ecosystem services’ into the market. Great hope is placed on technological solutions to issues of energy and resource availability. The concept of ecological limits to growth is still questioned. Many governments and corporations have begun to implement this understanding of sustainability.

‘Strong’ sustainability, on the other hand, reverses the order of priority and gives precedence to ecological scale over economic efficiency. Social equity, it is believed, is best achieved by restoring ecosystem health, recognizing ecological tipping points and cultivating system resilience. New economic indicators of well-being and quality of life are advocated (over more simplistic standards of living) and market-based solutions that impose monetary values on life and “ecosystem services” are rejected on moral grounds. As changes in supply-side efficiencies only address part of the issue, the role of consumption patterns are also stressed.

‘Weak’ sustainability in practice

The US and EU have increasingly embraced ‘weak’ sustainability policy measures to regulate such things as air quality and pollution, carbon emissions, and fisheries management. Carbon markets and air quality regulations, such as those recently delayed by President Obama, are designed by assigning market values to such things as CO2 emissions and health impacts from air pollution – they are fundamentally market-based responses that strive to encourage economic growth while recognizing ecological health concerns.

As is clear from the battles between the EPA and pro-business conservatives in Congress, environmental protection is still seen as a threat to economic growth by many. However, as is increasingly evident in the EU, formulating environmental policies in the language of market-based economics can successfully convince business and government of the fundamental interconnections between healthy economies and healthy ecosystems.

‘Strong’ sustainability in practice

A small number of countries have taken policy measures into the realm of ‘strong’ sustainability – and thus embraced a radically different worldview. Bolivia, for example, led by indigenous President Evo Morales, recently passed a Law for Mother Earth, effectively affirming the rights of nature “to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” Implicit in these rights is the idea that the Earth is a living, self-organizing entity that has rights equal to or greater than human beings, who are just one species in the whole community of life.

This law thus affirms the primacy of ecosystem health and resilience over economic growth – a profound paradigmatic shift. This is not a complete rejection of modern economics necessarily – Bolivia is still heavily involved in resource extraction and global trade. However, it entails a significant shift in values and economic priorities where human and non-human flourishing is acknowledged as the true goal of economic activity.

Specific policy approaches are still being developed to fit this new (or old) worldview, but potential examples include adaptive natural resource management systems that understand and account for overall ecosystem health and resilience, and more participatory democratic processes that empower citizens and limit corporate power.

The question arises then as to which of these approaches to sustainability will actually achieve the quickest and most dramatic changes in global consumption and production patterns. Should the language and tools of the status quo be employed to induce change quickly in the business world – a strategy which risks that the needed paradigmatic shift won’t take place in the long-run? Or should a completely different ecological worldview be formulated and communicated to encourage the paradigm shift – though refusing to use market tools that might undermine the new paradigm may alienate some political and business leaders?

Share your thoughts.


Why (at least) $4/gallon will make us healthier

This post originally appeared on www.mnn.com

Many Americans have been breathing a small sigh of relief as gas prices have steadily dropped from a nationwide average of nearly $4.00/gallon in May. But is the air we’re now inhaling dirtier as a result, given that Americans consume more gasoline as prices drop? For all the hidden social, environmental and economic costs of oil consumption, $4.00/gallon may actually be necessary for our own long-term health.

As the Center for Investigative Reporting shows, clean air provides far more economic and health benefits than it costs to achieve. Measures proposed by theEPA such as reducing toxic chemicals in gasoline may raise the cost of gas up front, but the public benefits far outweigh these costs: an EPA report estimates that controlling pollution “will prevent 23,000 Americans from dying prematurely…and 4,100,000 lost work days.” Traffic exhaust is one of the largest contributors to air pollution in the country, so making cars more fuel-efficient, gasoline more clean-burning or even (gasp!) driving less will have a large-scale affect on public health, especially in urban areas where many of our most vulnerable populations already live.

Beyond the direct health benefits to individuals and communities, higher gasoline prices and reduced oil consumption may be beneficial for other reasons, as well. It is well-documented that political instability across the globe, particularly in NorthAfrica and the Middle East, has a destabilizing effect on oil prices. With Libya, the U.S. is now engaged in three wars to protect our interests in oil-producing regions of the globe. Given the evidence, or lack thereof (WMDs anyone?), one might consider the $1,000,000,000,000+ we’ve spent on these three wars as indirect costs associated with oil dependency, stagnating our national economy and dramatically increasing our national debt. That’s not even to mention the far more devastating human toll these wars have taken.

As U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., recently said, “I think a realistic, responsible answer has to be focused on becoming less vulnerable to oil price changes over the medium- and long-term. And we become less vulnerable by using less oil” (emphasis added).

Despite our complaints, the U.S. already has it relatively easy at the pump. Most European countries averages more than $8/gallon and even the world’s fastest growing economies in India and China pay more than $4/gallon. What many of these countries have which we lack is an integrated and comprehensive public transportation network. High gasoline prices and abundant transportation options drive consumer behavior in a particular direction that not only gives people more flexibility, but reduces carbon emissions and thus actively improves public health.

My Climate Ride buddy Ben Jervey over at Good points out, “An odd trend seems to be that the (sic) most of countries that have gas prices under our own, are those same countries that so many politicians routinely cite as ‘evil’ or ‘undemocratic.'” Two countries with some of the cheapest gas prices in the world: Iraq and Iran.

Even the environmental effects of oil consumption and production have large-scale, tangible economic impacts. Our struggling economy could probably find better ways to spend the estimated $20 billion it has cost to clean up the Gulf oil spill. States are now cutting funding to primary education while spending over $600 million annually to clean up routine underground oil leakages at storage sites. There’s also this thing called climate change that some people are worried about.

If higher gasoline prices — more truthfully accounting for the environmental and social costs of gasoline in the first place — force us to drive less and rely on more creative and healthy ways to power our economy, then bring it on, OPEC!

It’s in our long-term interests to have cleaner air, a more peaceful globe and a more diverse and stable economy, and our reliance on oil actively undermines all of those goals. As volatile as gas prices are in the short-term, now dwindling global oil reserves mean gas prices ultimately have only one direction to go: up. But if handled wisely, there’s a fair chance our collective well-being might just go up with them.

The fuzzy economics of environmental protection

This post was first published at http://www.mnn.com.

Though much ink has recently been spilled in Pennsylvania weighing the economic benefits of natural gas drilling versus the costs to community health and water quality, air pollution has long been among the largest and most chronic threats to Pennsylvanians’ health and environmental quality.

Both debates, however, are fundamentally skewed by the same problem: the simplistic way we measure value in our economy.

EPA announces new regional emissions standards

The EPA took a significant step toward improving regional air quality last week with the announcement of new regulations on power plant emissions. The new Cross-State Air Pollution Rule is the first of many proposed environmental regulations to be rolled out by the EPA in the coming months, despite increasingly hostile attacks from Republican members of Congress and deeply entrenched special interest groups.

The “transport rule,” as it is now commonly called, aims to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that cross state borders, contributing to acid rain, high levels of ozone and smog, and lake and stream acidification in many downwind states across the Midwest and East Coast.

According to EPA estimates, the new rule would contribute significant economic benefits to the region in the form of lower healthcare costs from heart attacks and respiratory illnesses like asthma, as well as a dramatic decrease in missed work days due to illness. That is on top of an estimated 13,000 to 34,000 premature deaths that would be avoided by 2014. These figures are not seen as economically compelling to some because they are not reflected in the short-term profits of any corporation; they are social benefits that accrue over time — something our economy is not good at measuring and appreciating.</p

Pittsburgh has long suffered from having some of the nation’s worst air quality, though that has improved dramatically from the days of midday street lamps when soot blocked out the sun. The Pittsburgh City Council recently gave preliminary approval to another air quality measure that would require some diesel engines to be fitted with filters. However, much of Pittsburgh’s air quality woes can be traced to coal-burning plants up the Ohio River valley — emissions that would now be regulated by E.P.A.

As EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, “No community should have to bear the burden of another community’s polluters, or be powerless to prevent air pollution that leads to asthma, heart attacks and other harmful illnesses.”

Environmental protection: Cost or investment?

Yet that is exactly what many in the fossil fuel industry and their cronies in Congress are lobbying hard to protect: their “freedom” to continue spewing millions of tons of toxic chemicals from ancient coal-burning power plants, many of which were built in the 1950s. Their argument: the proposed regulations are too costly and don’t give them enough time to install the necessary clean technology (never mind that is has been available for years). And, of course, the regulations will kill jobs by shutting down old plants (never mind that they may actually create jobs for those manufacturing and installing the new technology). The health and labor costs to communities downwind of these plants have never been borne by the plant operators, as success in the energy sector, like many parts of the economy, is entirely dependent on externalizing as many costs as possible.

Some within the coal and power industries admit that most plant operators have been aware of pending regulations for years and have had plenty of time to prepare for them. According to Michael Bradley of Clean Energy Group, who represents 20 percent of the nation’s energy producers, “Sixty percent of the base-load coal capacity already has scrubbers for [sulfur dioxide] and advances in [nitrogen oxide] controls.” The cost to industry from the new transport rule is thus minimal for all but the oldest and dirtiest coal plants.

Despite the many compelling economic and community health reasons to support this and other regulations on pollution and waste, there is a fundamental flaw in the way our economy assigns value to such measures. As long as polluting industries can continue to externalize the costs of their emissions while raking in enormous profits, their access to the levers of power will ensure that environmental protection will be seen as a burdensome cost rather than a sound investment in ecological and economic health.

Until our measures of economic health go beyond short-term maximization of profits to include more comprehensive measures of environmental quality and resource quantity — factors that all businesses are fundamentally dependent on — the EPA will always be fighting an uphill battle. Certainly that has been the case with EPA’s attempts to regulate global warming emissions absent federal legislation.

At least these new regulations deal with something even polluters can’t deny: humans must breathe clean air.