Our Misplaced Focus on the Economy

The number one concern in American politics today is the economy. Americans are convinced this is THE most important issue facing the nation. In fact, we are told by many politicians that any attempt to protect the environment in this critical time will result in lost jobs and set economic growth back. Much as in the way we have been told over and over that cholesterol is bad (and we will refuse to believe statements to the contrary), we accept as truth there is an obvious dichotomy: we can prioritize the economy or we can prioritize the environment, but we can’t do both. Not only is this a false dichotomy (i.e., there are more than just two options to follow), it relies on incredibly simplistic thinking that turns out to be false in many cases. But then, would we expect otherwise from a broken political system?

Let me explain. The false notion goes something like this: if we force polluters (through regulations) to find ways to reduce emissions, it will cost the companies massive amounts of money and they will need to cut back on the number of people they employ (resulting in lost jobs) and they will charge more for their products, costing everyone more money for vital services and goods. This sounds so rational that it has been incorporated into our nation’s collective thinking. But it simply misses the mark on many accounts. One important point to consider is this: simply looking at the cost to produce goods for the company and the cost to the consumers for the goods (i.e., the price) isn’t taking into account all the costs associated with the manufacturing, such as medical bills people pay because they become sick from pollution. Therefore, if polluters cause harm (and they always do), what is the cost of treating the harm they cause? It often turns out that it is cheaper to insist on pollution controls than to accept the medical costs of environmental pollution.

Here is one example. A peer-reviewed study found that the Clean Air Act will (over a thirty year period) pay for itself an estimated 30 times over. That is to say, the savings in medical bills are 30 times that of the costs to companies to institute emissions controls. These savings come from an avoidance of health issues, such more than 160 thousand premature deaths, 130 thousand heart attacks, millions of cases of respiratory problems, and 86 thousand hospital admissions in the year 2010 alone! On top of all this, the Clean Air Act prevented an estimated 13 million lost work days (which hurts the economy) and 3.2 million lost school days in the same year, all the while boosting agricultural and silvicultural growth (which is slowed by pollution). Clearly, protecting the environment actually supports the economy. Without a clean environment, the economy suffers tremendously.

But here is the real issue. When you accept the false statement that environmental protection costs us jobs, what you are doing (even though you may not realize it) is shifting part of the total cost of manufacturing (in this case, the health bills) to the public, some of whom may not even use that particular product, making it extremely unfair. Considering that pollution abatement costs are less than 1% of the cost of manufacturing (this figure from a 2005 study), why is it deemed appropriate to shift the costs of treating health issues (for example, cancer, which is very taxing on personal income) to the public? Obviously, it isn’t, but it is the result of a successful campaign that has been waged by polluters to get you to accept the bill for their emissions. And if you pay close attention, you’ll notice that certain politicians are more apt to regurgitate the “jobs versus environment” phrase, successfully assisting large companies from publicly accepting responsibility for human and environmental harm they cause.

Our economy (much like our politics) needs to be overhauled for many reasons. Allowing companies to pollute without paying the resulting health bills is unreasonable. If they were forced to pay the health costs associated with their emissions, they would quickly curb emissions, helping everyone (including other-than-human persons). But beyond immediate concerns, what kind of environment are we leaving behind for our children? Keep in mind that 83 million tons of pollutants entered the US air in 2012 (and those are only the commonly measured pollutants), that 2.3 million tons of pesticides were sprayed on our foods (this doesn’t include herbicides and chemical fertilizers), and that 40% of American lakes are too polluted for fishing and swimming. Is this really what we want our legacy to be? Help me understand how a nation of people can continue with a lifestyle that depletes natural resources and pollutes the environment, leaving the world in a worse place than when they entered it. I feel history is going to paint a disparaging picture of the people alive today. It will point to the fact that so many things were apparently more important than respect for life, such as convenience, excessive comfort, and instant gratification. There are real solutions to our problems, but they aren’t all technological (i.e., if you are waiting for a new gadget to make our problems all go away, you are waiting for a solution that will never come). And for the record, this is not a call to close mills. Lost jobs hurt people in very real ways. I’m simply calling for a rethinking of what we accept as wastes and emissions (both in kind and amount). I’ll end this piece with a great quotation from Drew Dellinger:

it’s 3:32 in the morning,
and I’m awake
because my great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in my dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?

surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?

as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?

did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?

what did you do
knew? . . .