Reflections on Earth Day 2000

The first Earth Day of the new millennium reminded me of one of the peculiar ironies of our politics. While politicians of every stripe fixate on a Social Security crisis that is at least a generation off and improbable at best, many debate or deny the importance of pollution and resource shortages that cost lives and money every day. Thus, the original Earth Day message remains pertinent. Future generations will have plenty of money for Social Security only if we cease devaluing the natural capital upon which all economic development rests.

Environmentalists have made such claims before and are often greeted with the skepticism Marxists once elicited with predictions of capitalism's demise. Yet the environmentalist case need not rest on contentious forecasts about climate change or oil reserves. The American economy is stunningly inefficient in its use of human and natural resources. We pay for these inefficiencies not only in dollars but with our time and our health. A recent book by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism, not only documents the waste but suggests ways to rebuild rapidly a more efficient and sustainable economy.

The United States economy, the world's most productive, is also the most wasteful. Highway accidents cost about 40,000 lives a year. More Americans have died on our highways than in all the wars in our history combined. Highway congestion costs 100 billion dollars a year in lost productivity, a figure that does not include gasoline and maintenance costs.

Energy waste in our homes and businesses is equally staggering. Had we adopted the energy efficient practices implemented by our rivals over the last 25 years and applied the resulting savings to the infamous national debt, that debt would already be paid off.

The waste products of our production and consumption are even more staggering. That waste includes 3.5 billion pounds of carpet, 19 billion pounds of polystyrene peanuts, 360 billion pounds of organic and inorganic chemicals, and 3.7 trillion pounds of construction debris. This waste plays an ever more prominent role in our lives. Not only does its disposal endanger the health of many communities, it requires space to store and takes increasing shares of our tax dollars.

Hawken et al. properly fault the incentive structures that have led to such production choices. The price of gas at the pump does not reflect the military cost of its acquisition or the cost of the police and ambulance services needed to cope with highway carnage. Manufacturers of our televisions, VCR's, vacuum cleaners, carpets, and home furnishings have no financial responsibility for disposing of those items and thus little incentive to produce more durable and/or recyclable items. For much of the rental housing and office space, landlords purchase the lighting and heating units but do not pay the operating costs.

Unlike many environmentalist sagas, Hawken's includes many success stories. Even within existing incentive structures, some corporate CEO's have fashioned production processes that reduce waste, save energy costs, lengthen product durability, and improve the bottom line. The key to such successes is a willingness to look at production and design processes holistically and to think in terms of a longer time horizon.

The authors rightly deplore the irrationalities in our pricing and incentive structure. Nonetheless, in many cases these are a reflection of the ways extreme disparities in market power often translate into political power. Mass production industries gave the United States an endless array of seemingly cheap consumer goods, but these corporations used their profits not only to expand production facilities but to reshape our politics. Tax codes encouraged a resource intense form of suburbanization, and even minimal recycling requirements have been fought at the state and national level. In addition, increasingly fragmented and hierarchical workplaces have often made the kind of holistic and ongoing energy and resource conserving processes the authors admire more difficult to achieve.

An ecologically sustainable and thus more efficient economy is possible, but its achievement requires not only changes within corporate enterprises but also tax and policy reforms at the local, state, and federal level. At the state level, a set of related reforms might be considered to reduce the waste of our time and energy in our workplaces, homes, and schools. The authors document successful efforts even in such increasingly conservative states as California. Requiring employers to charge fair market value for employee parking (and pay an after-tax equivalent in increased wages), higher gas taxes during periods of peak congestion, zoning to encourage transit access, tying state housing and business assistance to potential energy and transit savings have already helped foster not only more sustainable but more efficient and livable communities.

Over the long term, our business and engineering schools might well consider the implications of Hawken's work for their curriculum and educational practices. Businesses that place energy efficiency, product longevity, and an educated and involved workforce at the center are more likely to prosper as ecological issues increasingly dominate our economy. The war between economics and ecology will continue only as long as we retain our shortsighted and simplistic understandings of each.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. He is co-author, with Tom DeLuca, of Sustainable Democracy: Individuality and the Politics of the Environment (Sage). He invites comments via e mail at:

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