In this world overwhelmingly controlled by capitalism and consumerism, green revolutions seem an arduous feat. Therefore, if major shifts towards more sustainable lifestyles are to be successful in this sociopolitical climate, green changes must take into account economic and social interests. Though it would be ideal to transform the fabrics of our society themselves (and step away from our consumerist habits), this is a task which is unrealistic for the immediate need for us to take dire environmental action. Instead, in the time being, we must incentivize sustainable living and economize the switch to renewable energy while simultaneously challenging the ideas of modern society through innovation and legal action.
The bulk of this week’s environmental studies material revolves around the fact that economic systems, by principle, rely on the consumption of natural capital. The textbook defines economics as “the social science that deals with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services to satisfy people’s needs and wants” (Miller 2019, 590). The economy functions on the hinges of supply and demand, which in turn rely on capital. Natural capital is a necessary aspect of economic systems to meet the supply and demand of their populations, because materials and land for manufacturing all must be reaped from nature.
A major issue regarding the economic use of natural capital is that the goods and services produced often leave out important information and costs regarding the impact of production on the environment. This is problematic because the degradation and effects of nature and minority groups are not matched by prices, leading to an overproduction of goods and an unproportionate harm to the environment. Earth’s natural capital, apart from simply having subjective intrinsic value, should also technically hold economic value, as “the economies of the Earth would grind to a halt without the services of ecological life-support systems” (Costanza 1997). The intrinsic value of nature is not factored into the price of goods and services, so it is exploited and used disproportionately. This backfires, because as nature is destroyed for profit, we and the plethora of species on Earth also suffer because we rely on the natural systems which are harmed by environmental degradation. Because of this paradox of interests, governments can attempt to equalize this damage through laws, regulations, and subsidies. On a more individual level, people can work towards sustainability in their daily lives and their businesses.
Fig. 1: Human reliance on Earth for their consumption of goods and services
One way businesses and corporations can work to decrease their disproportionate damage to the environment is through sustainable business practices. According to Wikipedia, “a sustainable business, or a green business, is an enterprise that has minimal negative impact, or potentially a positive effect, on the global or local environment, community, society, or economy” (“Sustainable Business” 2020). The motivation of a majority of sustainable businesses is to decrease the ecological and carbon footprints of the production and consumption of goods and services. Sustainable business works with the current economic systems by developing desirable products which stimulate the economy in a way which does less immediate harm to the environment. Some examples of sustainable business practices are the use of green architecture, incorporating renewable energy as a source of electricity, relying on ethically made materials, and including environmental, health, and other hidden costs in the selling price of goods and services. I believe that sustainable development of our society could be possible through the rise of sustainable businesses, as they combine environmental, social, and economic spheres to shape a more sustainable economic model.
Fig. 1: Aspects of sustainable development.
Another way to decrease the environmental damage of consumerism transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Our world is heavily reliant on the use of coal, oil, and natural gas for our energy, and this has had dire consequences on our Earth. Greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuels contribute to climate change, which poses a huge threat to the human race and the health of the world as a whole. Therefore, discontinuing the reliance on fossil fuels would be a major success for the future of Earth. However, as this is a large-scale and intricate issue, governmental interference is most likely necessary to make this change happen fluidly.
An example of a government effectively making this transition is seen in the core case study of chapter 23 in the textbook, which describes how Germany is making a mass shift to renewable energy. According to the textbook, “the country aims to get 65% of its electricity from renewable energy resources by 2030 and 80% by 2050. It plans to phase out nuclear power as a source of its electricity by 2022 and ultimately to cease relying on coal to produce electricity” (Miller 2019, 589). By 2018, the country’s uses of wind energy surpassed its usage of coal and nuclear energy. The success of this development lies in the fact that it “has created a multibillion-dollar German industry that includes renewable energy production and sales of renewable energy technology around the world” (Miller 2019, 589). The German government has enacted a “feed-in tariff” system, which guarantees that people who produce renewable energy will not lose money, but make a profit. In addition, the switch to renewable energy has created a more healthy and environmentally sustainable economy for Germany, and demonstrates that a shift away from fossil fuels does not need to break the economy and can actually greatly benefit society. This is a great example of using current economic systems to the advantage of the environment.
As the case study demonstrates, a huge way governments can become involved in the journey to sustainability is through environmental law. The term “environmental law” “encompass[es] aspects of the law that provide protection to the environment,” and can be extremely impactful on a society, because the resulting environmental actions become not only individual (and subjective) moral responsibility, but a responsibility to the law (“Environmental Law 2020”). Environmental enactments like the Clean Air Act of 1970 have shown us that governmental action can have real power in the future of our world, as Earth would be in much worse shape if the acts hadn’t been put into action. Therefore, though incentivizing and economizing environmental change is important, it is also necessary to push for change through legal action and the spread of new ideas. The question in today’s socio-political climate is, however, whether the administration would even care enough to enact serious environmental legislation.
I believe there is hope however, as the gradual shift towards sustainability and the large-scale sharing of ideas via social media have great potential to make big waves. In Consumer of Citizen?, Ernest Partridge asks whether the development of modern society brings freedom to a community, or simply aids in our becoming mindless machines of consumerism. This sort of question is becoming more and more prevalent in the minds of today’s young people, and in asking this question, I believe that we challenge the consumer’s norm of success and order. When this sort of thinking spreads and reaches the legal system, we can begin to dismantle the systems of degradations from the inside. There would be a ripple effect, beginning from the gradual shift towards sustainability in business, law, and the economy, to questions of the need and validity of consumerism, to the large-scale changes by legal action on a governmental level. I think change can happen, but we need to take the little steps in order to get there.
In conclusion, the current consumeristic systems of modern society are tightly connected with the degradation of the environment, so for the environment to recuperate and thrive, we must find a balance between working with the system to incentivize environmental change, and gradually dismantling the system through legal acts and the spread of ideas.
Word Count: 1297
Question: In the current socio political climate (in which people deny the existence of climate and environmental issues), how much can we hope for true change? Especially under the current administration… is the enactment of new (and crucial) environmental law even a possibility?
Costanza, Robert, Ralph d’Arge, Rudolf de Groot, Stephen Farberk, Monica Grasso, and Bruce Hannon. “The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital.” London, May 15, 1997.
“Environmental Law.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, September 21, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_law.
Miller, G. Tyler, and Scott Spoolman. Living in the Environment. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2018.
Partridge, Ernest. “Consumer or Citizen?” Template with sidebar, April 2002. http://gadfly.igc.org/politics/left/consumer.htm.
Rahman, Md. Masudur, and Tareq Amin. “Holistic Approach towards Sustainable Fashion Industry (Part 1).” Textile Today, July 30, 2017. http://www.textiletoday.com.bd/holistic-approach-towards-sustainable-fashion-industry-part-1/.
“Sustainable Business.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, August 2, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_business.