The Environmental Costs That Will Come Back To Bite Us

Who remembers the heady days before the onset of the global recession, when everyone was giddy with opportunity and possibility and the world was our oyster? When there was a rapidly developing trend of environmental responsibility, paired with substantial investment in environmental activities, an era when a movie about global warming could attract huge audience numbers and people would happily go on extremely long waiting lists for hybrid cars? It was an era when we seemed to be at the cusp of significant environmental changes; policywise, personal ethicswise, societywise.

Many of these changes, it appeared, were in no small part possible because of the perceived state of economic stability. In an economy that only seemed to go in one direction, up, it was easy to turn our minds and our focus to other things. It was easy to pretend that the environment mattered for a while when you were a major corporation with money to burn, trying to attract customers with money to spend on your products. Trying to win over new sectors of the market that traditionally resisted you. It was easy to dedicate government funds to environmental initiatives when tax revenues were high and people were in a tolerant mood for the inevitable price creep, the small shifts in costs that inevitably happen at the start of environmental initiatives, when doing things better costs more money.

And how quickly many of these ideals have been abandoned, in the wake of the recession. It’s not just that there is less interest in environmental issues, but that many initiatives once proudly touted are now being quietly rolled back. This is not, of course, true across the board. A number of companies that decided to take on an environmentally responsible ethic are following through with it and some trends, like decreasing packaging, are definitely continuing. Overall, I think there’s still an argument to be made that some upward trends in terms of how we think about and protect the environment are ongoing despite the economy.

In policyland, however, things are grim. A number of states have proposals on the table to adjust environmental regulations in a backward direction, to create a more lax regulatory climate. Some states have already done so. In places like California where ballot initiatives can be a political tool, turning back the clock on environmental matters seems to come up in almost every election. Voters are presented with a seductive argument: All of their current economic woes can be blamed on strict regulations that ruin all the fun and make it impossible for ‘small businesses[1. Major corporations and medium businesses that like to pretend they are ‘small.’]’ to do business. Those businesses are going to go away because of the state’s regressive laws. Sure, the environment is nice, but we need money more, so you should vote yes on the initiative to suspend regulations, to bring them back to a previous level.

Government agencies responsible for making and setting environmental policy are no exception to the funding slashes across the board. With fewer personnel available they have to take on a less active role and they may not be able to fund significant, and potentially important, initiatives. They cannot afford detailed investigations. They may not even be able to afford to follow up on every report from concerned members of the public. They may be aware that polluters are operating in their jurisdiction, but unable to do anything about it.

This is framed as a bitter necessity. We are assured that when things are ‘better,’ environmental regulations will tighten back up again and we will continue with programmes to develop alternative energy, to make industry more environmentally friendly, to develop cost-effective products that also preserve the environment so that people in all classes can afford to vote with their wallets when it comes to deciding what they do and don’t want to buy and what kinds of companies they want to support. Oddly, boosters now are telling us that the economy is getting better and everything is great. Oh, but we don’t want to tighten up environmental regulations, you see, because that might disturb the fragile equilibrium and create a ‘hostile business climate’ and that would mean that we might slip back into recession.

The thing about the environment is that it is always there, through political administrations, through economic downturns, through the rise and fall of nations and new political theories. And the things that we do to it, those are always there too. The decisions we make have a lasting impact that will not go away when (if) the economy ‘gets better.’ The decisions we are making right now, to bring our regulations back to older levels, dangerous levels that were criticised, and rightly so, are dangerous decisions. They may not be dangerous for us, but they will be dangerous for our descendants, the people who will have to clean up our mess.

It is very easy to claim that we will restore things at some vague point in the future, but what happens in the meantime? Many of the pressing environmental issues that were causes for concern before the recession are still present. Some are looming even larger. The global food crisis is not occurring in a vacuum. It is part of a complex, interconnected system, the same system that was contributing to lack of access to potable water, desertification, and other environmental ills before. They may seem less important now, but we are making decisions we will have ample time to regret in the future.

They tell us we must all make hard sacrifices, those of us who are not politicians and bankers and major corporations. We must shoulder our share of the burden so that these three (often overlapping) groups can survive. And apparently the environment, too, must pay the price of the bailouts and corporate handouts.