Say, How About That Environment

Prior to the financial crisis or recession or whatever in the heck they are calling it, the environment seemed like one of the major issues in this country, and the world. Sure, health care was an issue, but it wasn’t very pressing, because all the people we care about had jobs and could afford insurance. Sure, the war was kind of annoying, but it was in the background, so no one really had to deal with it.

But the environment.

Environmental awareness has been growing pretty rapidly in the last 10 years. We’ve even got evil corporations jumping on the “we care about the environment” bandwagon. Products are branded as “green” because companies know that consumers will pay a premium for them, but bigger things have been going on too. Like international discussions about the condition of the environment, and what we are going to do about it. Like tougher laws on pollution, new attempts at environmental cleanup, etc.

It kind of seemed like humans were collectively recognizing that we had a serious problem and we needed to get cracking on addressing it. Indeed, it was kind of heartening to see people all over the world, in all walks of life, thinking about environmental issues and trying to make suggestions for reform and improvement. It sort of gave me hope for humanity; we can’t all be bad if so many of us are recognizing that we are destroying the Earth and we should do something about it before it becomes too late.

But, somehow, the environment has fallen out of the discussion, what with the financial crisis and all. Don’t get me wrong. The situation with the economy is important, and it does need to be addressed, even though I think it’s being handled very badly. But the situation with the environment is also important, and it’s not going away even though no one seems to be talking about it these days.

One interesting thing in the stimulus package were funds specifically dedicated to environment cleanup. The New York Times recently published an article, “Carefully Cleaning Up the Garbage at Los Alamos,” talking about how some of those stimulus funds are being used. And I think it’s a terrific idea. An example, actually, of how you can help the environment and the economy at the same time. If you’re dedicating funds to stimulus efforts and deciding that one way to address the problem is to create jobs, why not create jobs in environmental cleanup?

I think it’s great that some stimulus funds are specifically going to address environmental issues. A number of other sites are also being cleaned up with stimulus money. This is actually one of the few uses of stimulus funds which I can really get behind. And I think it’s interesting to note that this is one of the most WPA-esque uses of these funds; instead of just handing out money, instead of giving money to corporations, the government is making jobs which allow unemployed people to feel useful, while also making those jobs valuable and important. We’re not just creating makework here, we are actually doing something important. Which is terrific.

But, can we get back to larger environmental issues for a moment? Can we talk about the fact that world leaders have been primarily focused on the economy, and that they seem to be lapsing on their commitment to the environment? I’ve been hearing rumblings of proposals to relax some environmental regulations as a form of economic stimulus, for example, and I’m hearing countries back away from commitments to alternative energy and other environmental programs.

This is a problem. I understand the desire to get the global economy back up and running. But I do not think that throwing the environment under a bus is going to address this issue. It’s just going to create more problems in the future. What happens if regulations are relaxed and companies take advantage of it, generating pollution and environmental problems? What happens when we decide that it’s time to tighten up those regulations again?

I see a lot of evidence that global leaders are not thinking clearly about the future. They are thinking about the next six months, the next year, but not the long term consequences of their actions. They are thinking about how to fix things right now, but they’re cobbling together fixes, instead of getting to the root of why these things are happening. I think it’s possible to retain our commitment to the environment without damaging the economy. In fact, as discussed above, I think you can address environmental issues and economic ones at the same time.

Environmental innovation is key. Innovation can turn into economic growth. Can we try promoting innovation instead of just pouring money into the banks, perhaps? Can we incentivize job creation in the environmental sector? Can we get people thinking about how to make environmental protection, well, profitable?

I think a problem in the past has been that a lot of “environmental” things can be profitable, but not actually all that good for the environment. Telling people to buy more crap, even “green” crap, is not the solution, for example. Telling people to economize in the interests of the environment is not going to benefit the economy, because, well, when people aren’t buying crap, other people aren’t making money.

Capitalism is an inherently problematic system because it focuses on generating profits above all, no matter what the cost might be. I was sort of hoping that the global economic issues would lead people to identify some of the more obvious issues with capitalism, and that we might see a shift towards a better world as a result, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. People still worship the almighty profit and still think that huge corporations have inherent value and perform a service for society.

Given that we are clearly not going to change the system, can we work within the system to effect environmental change?