Sustainability, the Economy and the Presidential Race

The Presidential nominating conventions are now approaching, first the Democrats’ and then the Republicans’. The President hangs out at the Olympics, stomps his feet over the Russian invasion of Georgia and then makes another pass at gutting the Endangered Species Act by reducing the time and scientific analysis needed to assess the environmental impact of federal projects. The energy and climate issue have provided some environmental content to this campaign, but the folks running the country still don’t see the stake we have in environmental sustainability.

What does an extinct frog have to do with human well-being? What does the environment have to do with economic wealth? Can’t our technology solve any environmental problem we make? The short answer, as we learned nearly half a century ago from Rachael Carson and Barry Commoner, is that everything is connected to everything else. We live on a finite planet that provides us with the air, water and food we need in order to live. We do not have the technology to leave the planet or overcome its constraints.

Economic development and the creation of wealth cannot be pursued without factoring in environmental quality and the preservation of natural resources. If we pollute our water, we can clean it up with enough energy, but we do not have the technology for low-cost, limitless energy and so when we fowl up the water and must clean it up, we spend money we could be using on something else. Half of New York City’s water can avoid expensive filtration because ecosystems filter the water free of charge. A well-managed environment generates wealth; a poorly managed environment costs us wealth.

The political dialogue in the United States is slowly starting to reflect the reality of sustainable development. If your wealth is based on a finite resource that you use up, when the resource is gone, so is your wealth. The trick is to use the time you have when exploiting the finite resource to make the transition to renewable resources. That is the central economic challenge of the 21st century. Here in 2008, we see local government officials like Michael Bloomberg in New York City, Andy Spano up in Westchester and of course Arnold Schwarzenegger in California who seem to get it. Environmental quality is not the opposite of economic well being, it is integral to it. In a study of local level sustainability efforts across the United States last spring, students at Columbia University’s MPA Program in Environmental Science and Policy studied 14 governments of small jurisdictions (1,000,000 people or less) and analyzed a new trend to develop comprehensive local sustainability plans.

These local officials understand the connection between economic development and environmental sustainability. Why is it so difficult to make this case to the national media and our national leadership? This has been an era characterized by the promise of easy everything. Wars financed without new tax revenues and soldiered without a draft. Infrastructure allowed to crumble so that taxes could be cut. Riches made on imaginative packaging of debt "products" backed by imaginary equity in an over-inflated housing market. For a decade many of us were trying to figure out who could really afford those multi-million dollar apartments going up around the corner. The answer seems to be nobody. The gasoline price shock of the past six months, the housing market meltdown, the resurgence of inflation (producer prices jumped 1.2% in July) are indicators that the bill for this early 21st century boom is coming due.

We need to ask ourselves, what is the basis for real economic growth and wealth? Work and production based on creativity and invention financed by capital accumulated through savings: That was the fundamental formula that grew the U.S. economy. We need to add to that traditional formula a new concern for sustainability. Our wealth must be renewable- not based on a set of finite natural resources.

Which brings us back to Presidential politics. Sacrifice sounds good in public pronouncements but polls poorly when spelled out in detail. No one is going to get elected by promising to increase taxes in order to invest in research to develop renewable energy. Yet, only by deferring a little gratification and investing in our future can we maintain the wealth we now enjoy.

Instead, we will see Nancy Pelosi start to talk about drilling for oil off the continental shelf, and a lame duck President working overtime to dismantle as many environmental rules as he can between mid-November and mid-January. We will hear a few phrases at the two conventions aimed at shoring up the environmental credentials of the two candidates. They won’t mean much because there will be little reality behind the rhetoric. The hope, as it often has been in the American experiment is that community, private, local and state initiatives will push the national government into action. It would be better if it came more rapidly from a well-led national government. Let’s see if we manage to get one.