Writing during the US’s dismal performance at the World Cup, David Brooks, liberals? favorite conservative, threw a low blow in an attempt to level the playing field. ?No American player has managed to put a ball into the back of the net, but the U.S. team does lead the world in one vital category: college degrees.? Indeed, Mr. Brooks’s assessment of American academic superiority on the soccer field is correct. But after trumpeting the link between this country’s academic and economic accomplishments, Brooks fails to mention that the United States is also a global leader in many other fields, including green house gas emissions. What cheerleaders of the American economy like Brooks often overlook is that our economic success has been a pyrrhic victory resulting in immeasurable costs to our environment. For countries now starting down the path of development, the history of American capitalism raises many interesting questions about the future of our planet. Among them are these: Is economic growth inextricably linked to environmental degradation? If not, how can developing nations go right where the US has gone wrong?
If we trace the trajectory of modern capitalism back to its origins in England, we find what appears to be a frightening connection between economic growth and environmental degradation. Those ?dark, satanic mills,? which powered the industrial revolution and drew the ire of Karl Marx, were more than just a factory worker’s worst nightmare. They were an environmental nightmare as well, spewing out toxins that fouled rivers and darkened skies. Today many modern industries are no less insidious when it comes to the environment. Just ask Laurie David, the outspoken environmentalist and wife of Larry David from “Curb Your Enthusiasm.? Or, if you don?t trust this ?gulfstream liberal,? ask the residents of Cleveland, Ohio, who witnessed the Cuyahoga, a river that ?oozes rather than flows,? catch fire in 1969.Not yet convinced of the cause and effect relationship between economic growth and environmental degradation? Good, because neither am I. And if you don?t trust me, why not heed the advice of an authority like the Columbia economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who writes that economic growth, in and of itself, is not the cause of environmental degradation. ?Some growth strategies may be good for the environment; others may not be,? Stiglitz writes, proving that simplicity is the soul of wisdom. To illustrate his point he cites two examples: ?Many forms of pollution have gone down as richer countries have turned their mind to air-quality issues, but greenhouse gas emissions — with all the dangers they present for global warming — have continued to increase with economic growth, especially in the United States.?
So what does all this mean for the developing world? The answer, I think, is that sustainability must be at the forefront of any future growth initiative. Our increasingly globalized world has made the interconnectedness of things more clear. Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? Probably not. But burning coal in a Chinese power plant pollutes ecosystems as far away as Lake Tahoe. And, as Stiglitz points out, ?The United States’ production of greenhouse gases imposes staggering costs on others — especially low-lying islands that will be inundated in the not-too-distant future.? If markets are to work properly, corporations will not be allowed to externalize environmental costs, as they have been doing for hundreds of years. Instead, consumers, who are bearing these costs, must hold them accountable and force them to adopt more sustainable business practices.
In fact, this is already beginning to happen. Corporations like General Electric, which were once infamous for their environmental records, are now taking enormous strides to clean up their act. My only fear is that these corporations are going green because they simply want to cash in on the latest consumer trends. Just like mullets and mustaches were cool in the 80s, bamboo and cork are hip today. Given how fickle consumers are, I worry that sustainability might go the way of the mullet. Therefore, ensuring that sustainability is not just a trend, but a core component of our political culture, must be the focus of the environmental movement.
Ultimately, we must keep in mind that environmental problems are social problems as well. Skyrocketing rates of diabetes, asthma, and autism are just a few of the myriad problems that have resulted from placing growth above the environment. With the social consequences of environmental degradation becoming more evident, we have reached the point where growth must be rethought so that its takes on a moral dimension. As Stiglitz asks, ?Are there policies that can promote what might be called moral growth — growth that is sustainable, that increases living standards not just today but for future generations as well, and that leads to a more tolerant, open society??
In the developing world, where people live more closely to the land, the demand for moral growth is the most urgent. And not surprisingly, it is in many of these countries where you can find some of the leading environmental innovators. Brazil, for example, has centered its energy policy on biomass and ethanol. In Kenya, solar panels are catching on in a big way. Even in car hungry China, the bicycle, once the laughingstock of this nation, is reemerging as an answer to smog and gridlock.
In the end, if moral growth is to catch on around the world it won?t be because more people have an American college diploma. Only once we have learned from America’s economic and environmental shortcomings will we see a new type of growth that is both sustainable and environmentally friendly.