Economics and Law and their vital role in Environmentalism

Law and Business relate intimately to one another when it comes to solving policy or business problems that are rooted in the environment. In order to realize why they are so important I introduced the background information of certain important environmental policies that have been put in effect in the past, as well as the concept of Natural Capital-a term which helps economists understand the benefits of maintaining natural resources. There are particular reasons why the involvement in environmental issues as a consumer and voter is important, but in order to see what exactly is needed in order to keep business or politics sustainable is a whole other question entirely. In general, if we were to implement environmental solutions in the economic or political field there are several solutions that we can use to solve many of the world’s environmental problems.

Florida's Mangroves provide many ecological services, and thus economic services, thus making them vital Natural Capital

Florida’s Mangroves provide many ecological services, and thus economic services, thus making them vital Natural Capital

An economic solution to environmental problems that is usually overlooked is the prevention of governments from intervening in market failures. If governments are busy providing subsidies to oil and gas companies and neglectful of assigning benefits to such natural resources like old-growth forests, then there is no way that these natural resources will be protected from an economic standpoint. On the flip side, it is impossible for sustainable businesses to compete with businesses that are unsustainable if the unsustainable businesses continue to receive rampant subsidies from the government. If this injustice is righted then it will promote fairer competition and might lead to the inevitable failing of the unsustainable businesses.

Further, the entire economic system to which we now subscribe to is not sustainable in the long term. If we continue to consider the typical growth of the high-throughput economic system as normal, then there is no way that we can realistically reform the economy. High-throughput involves attempting to boost economic growth by increasing the flow of matter and energy resources extracted from the environment to produce goods and services. This type of economic system is unsustainable in the long run and does not take into consideration the actual limitations of the environment. It expects indefinite exponential economic growth when the environment can only be taxed this way for so long before collapsing.

These Oil fields in Belridge California are part of the high-throughput economy, and may be depleted soon, since we use the oil faster than nature can provide it.

These Oil fields in Belridge California are part of the high-throughput economy, and may be depleted soon, since we use the oil faster than nature can provide it.

A more realistic approach would involve selling services instead of things, such as in a service flow economy. Companies such as Xerox are at the forefronts of this idea. In essence it involves having people rent all of the products that they usually buy and when they are done with them they are completely refurbished and reused by someone else. Doing this would save many resources and steer us away from unsustainable business practices. They also take charge in terms of corporate responsibility, something we will discuss later.

This Xerox copier being put together in Knoxville, Tennessee will be taken apart and refurbished again and again-an example of the service economy

This Xerox copier being put together in Knoxville, Tennessee will be taken apart and refurbished again and again-an example of the service economy

Another two solutions I mentioned in an earlier blog post are now relevant. They are the pricing of items at their actual price which includes the harmful external costs that are inherent in its production, and getting rid of poverty, which contributes to many environmental problems.

Changing the prices of many goods would give consumers a more realistic choice as to what they are consuming and also force businesses such as many fast food restaurants to be truly transparent about how their products are made, and how intensive they are on the environment.

Just producing the 550 million Big Macs sold each year in the U.S. creates 2.66 billion pounds of carbon dioxide. Offsetting these emissions could cost as much as $36.4 million.

Just producing the 550 million Big Macs sold each year in the U.S. creates 2.66 billion pounds of carbon dioxide. Offsetting these emissions could cost as much as $36.4 million.

Eliminating poverty is no easy task, but there is one growing solution accessible to the everyday consumer in the United States: microloans. Microloans, such as those available to be fulfilled at kiva.org, are money lending systems that are paid to people in need directly. They may need basic necessities such as electricity or clean water or more complex capital such as machinery to jump start their businesses and these loans will help. Everyday people can send money, and repayment of loans is extremely reliable. The money may even go towards something environmentally sustainable, such as a single solar panel or bicycle, and is different from conventional foreign aid in that it is repaid right back to the consumer and not through taxes which pay for foreign aid conventionally. This exciting, new field is a great solution to the environmental problems poverty poses.

Griselda from Bolivia was able to purchase merchandise for her store with a loan from more than twenty lenders.

Griselda from Bolivia was able to purchase merchandise for her store with a loan from more than twenty lenders.

Environmental law is composed of a body of laws and treatises that define what is acceptable environmental behavior for individuals, groups and nations. Environmental solutions in the political field are fairly logical and fall in neatly with those that are economic. A grassroots organization such as Greenpeace is one such solution, and representative of the power that many individuals speaking for their rights possess.

A ship that is part of Greenpeace, an international environmental grassroots organization

A ship that is part of Greenpeace, an international environmental grassroots organization

Many times, as discussed in an earlier blog post, the advocacy for environmental issues comes from simple realization that the members of a community are not living in a clean environment, like with the Love canal, and several passionate people come forward to face this issue head-on. Many times this works, as all that was really needed was someone to identify the problem, but sometimes it takes more work and advocacy. This same idea is true today-as many grassroots campaigns for environmental disasters and those that care for the future unite to face the problems that effect people on the local level. The real trouble will be getting people to understand global, long-term problems such as global climate change, which is something that involves many people but is not as visible as pollution or bad air quality.

Eco-activist Diane Wilson raised awareness of a Superfund site polluted with toxic mercury that was affecting her community.

Eco-activist Diane Wilson raised awareness of a Superfund site polluted with toxic mercury that was affecting her community.

Analysts and political leaders alike call for environmental security to be a higher priority for countries across the globe. They feel that there needs to be more transparency on where exactly some nations have moved their dirty industries to. And although the Montreal Protocol and Copenhagen Accord are monumental steps forward, even more work needs to be done in those spheres of policy. Politicians simply need to realize that cooperating on the international scale in agreements of environmental security is just as important, if not more, than issues of national or economic security.

In addition, there still needs to be corporate responsibility taken for actions that the government mandates. As I mentioned earlier there is crossover between politics and economics An increasing number of CEOs are aware that developing and selling green products will be money-makers this century, but even so ethics may play a part.

Kathryn Winkler, Chief Sustainability Officer of EBM (a cloud computing corporation) holds a job that shows the corporation is taking responsibility for their actions

Kathryn Winkler, Chief Sustainability Officer of EBM (a cloud computing corporation) holds a job that shows the corporation is taking responsibility for their actions

In order for the people’s voices to be heard and get politicians to act, major citizen groups that spearhead global conservation and environmental justice movements must work hard. Non-governmental organizations, which bring people together at the international, national and local levels help them understand problems and then formulate environmental decisions and policies that can be decided on by representatives in government. NGO’s can also help expose corruption and violations of environmental agreements. These environmental groups are pertinent in helping to promote the regulation of lobbying groups to make the government more responsive of the needs of the citizens and less so to the needs of large corporations. One success story of an NGO is the National Resources Defense Council which organized opposition to the protocol to allow sewer operators to regularly dump raw sewage into lakes, rivers, and streams. In 2005, vocal opposition to this practice by citizens led the House of Representatives to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from allowing this to occur.

Citizen advocacy got the EPA to change their proposal. The EPA office in Washington D.C. is pictured here

Citizen advocacy got the EPA to change their proposal. The EPA office in Washington D.C. is pictured here

Although there are such groups like the NRDG, there are also more violent political groups that seek to free animals from laboratories or destroy large vehicles like bulldozers and SUVs. These tactics should not be employed, as they tend to dirty the image of environmentalism and do more harm than good when policies come into play. Generally a moderate but informed political organization will garner attention to problems as well as earn the respect of citizens who will decide their view on them.

PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, often host protests that mean well but do not tend to accomplish the goals of convincing people against purchasing particular products

PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, often host protests that mean well but do not tend to accomplish the goals of convincing people against purchasing particular products

Colleges and Universities, in fact, have the greatest impact on changing the face of environmentalism and promoting environmental sustainability and stewardship. Students who advocate for environmentalism will increase environmental literacy on campus and in their local community, and many prospective students increasingly base their decision to attend a university based on how green it is. This small scale community is a microcosm of the general population, and so the fact that environmental issues can gets a voice heard by the administration means there is optimism for the voice of environmental issues even to the international level.

A solar array at Oberlin College produces 2.27 megawatts of electricity, showing how Oberlin can set an example for other institutions.

A solar array at Oberlin College produces 2.27 megawatts of electricity, showing how Oberlin can set an example for other institutions.

What is important to remember is how much you, the voter and consumer matter. Everyday small purchases do add up, and your vote to a representative of environmental interest does matter. Even taking your own step up, like running for office or becoming an advocate for consumer change, is possible. The people have more power than they know in all matters of environmental change, it only takes participation.

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