Can an environmentalist focus solely on sustainability or are they drawn into wider issues such has how fairly the material product of the economy is distributed?

Perhaps heightened by the leadership contest in the Green Party, there appears to be a debate going on about where environmentalism fits into the political spectrum. I am not a member of the Green Party (nor any other, for that matter) but I have been struggling with how the environment fits into the general history of New Zealand which I am writing. Along with resources, the environment is integral, of course, especially if you are coming from an economics perspective, but they are frequently overlooked.


There are a number of problems associated with the interaction between the environment and the market economy. Let’s look at only one, sustainability. A market works on the basis of dollar votes, that is, the number of dollars an individual spends influences the market outcomes. Those who have no dollars have no votes. That includes those who are yet to be born. Frequently, but not always, we use our dollar votes in a way that ignores their interests. The outcomes include environmental destruction and resource depletion which ,later generations will regret.


The solution is not automatically a non-market one. Children and the yet-to-be born dont have much political clout either. Those countries which were part of the Soviet Empire with economies which largely over-ruled the market had deplorable environmental records. In comparison it makes one proud to be a New Zealander, but only in comparison; our historical record ain’t too good either.


What we have tried to do as we became increasingly aware of the environmental damage we were causing, is to restrain the private market by government actions. There are many examples, but a good illustration is the Resource Management Act with its provisions for sustainability. What exactly that means is a matter of fraught debate, but one way of thinking about it is that it gives the interests of the yet-to-be born some weight. Whether it gives them too little or too much is contested. The constant pressures to undermine the sustainability provision of the RMA come from those who seek dollar votes. They are offset, in part, by the green lobby who give greater weight to outcomes which do not reflect the market, giving more weight to the interests of the young and yet to be born.


The implication is that one dimension – not the only one, I add – of the environmentalist concern is a distributional one. It is an intergenerational conflict which economists find difficult to analyse except at a simple level.


But they can be provocative. Famously Larry Summers, the most qualified economist to have ever headed the US Treasury, signed a World Bank memorandum which remarked that ‘the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable’. The person who wrote it for him, Lant Pritchett, insists that it was intended to be ‘sarcastic’. (Summers has a reputation for making provocative statements intended to open up debate.)


Read the memo in full and you will have no doubt it was ironic. The very last paragraph indicated its real intention. It was to remind the Summers team that the arguments listed in the parenthesis all deserve weight in their decisions:


‘The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization.’ 


Let me write a parallel statement (please dear reader, it is ironic to get a point across): ‘the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste for future generations to deal with is impeccable’. Change the term ‘toxic waste’ to some other environmental degradation and we have the case for castrating the RMA; the last paragraph of the Summers memorandum says ‘dont be silly’.


Is the issue solely an intergenerational distribution one? The memo is about rich and poor countries but equally it could be about rich and poor regions or rich and poor people.


To put it more elaborately, should we protect the interests of future generation at the expense of the poor of this generation? After all, the average level of material consumption of those yet-to-be-born is likely to be higher than that of today’s poor?


That does not mean that we should sacrifice the environment today in order to give the poor a better deal. (That is an implicit argument used for some environmentally degrading projects, but careful analysis shows they are typically of much greater value to the rich.) Rather, it says that the moral logic of promoting the interest of the yet-to-be-born leads one also to be concerned about the poor.


This is just one example of a general issue of green politics. Unless it is extremist extremist, it cannot ignore the rest of the political issues which confront us. I’ve done this only on the distributional policy dimension. There are other issues such as the nature and outcome of the growth process, the valuation of intangibles not valued in the market, imperfect information and the quality of life, where the same conclusion broadly applies.


What this means for the Green Party is for them to decide, Even if you do not belong to the party  you also have to cope with the challenges.

Comments (7)

by Viv Kerr on April 28, 2015
Viv Kerr

Brian, thanks for an interesting post, but it only seems to consider the environment as it relates to people and what people now, or on the future, can extract from it.

 My interpretation of 'environmentalism' is that it is concerned about the world as a whole, all ecosystems and the flora and fauna that exist as part of them. “Sustainability” seems to mean people being able to continually extract resources from the environment, without depleting those resources.

 So “Can an environmentalist focus solely on sustainability?” I'd say no. People are part of the whole interconnecting system, but so are are other species. As an environmentalist I think they all matter, human and non-human, living now and those to come. Complicates it even more sorry.

by mudfish on April 29, 2015

Well put, Viv.

The world I want for my grandchildren is a flourishing, diverse one, with lots of wild places, not one that is impoverished into a series of economically efficient monocultures, even if that meant all people were "better off". Trouble is, politics is an anthropocentric business and the blue spotted geckos of Sumatra don't get a vote.



by william blake on April 29, 2015
william blake

People are part of the environment and are exploited just as efficiently as an open cast mine. I think 'extractive' industries that plunder consumers should be responsible for all of the clean up costs they rack up in making their profit, just like the open cast mine being refilled and replanted, alcohol, fast food, gambling etc, industries should be responsible for all of the environmental damage they do, all of the health costs, the criminal cost, the social costs that are paid for by tax payers. There are enormous subsidies being paid to allow unregulated damage to our communities; it is not a free market. 

The obvious rebuttal to this is that the free choice of the Individual consumer is sovereign . To counter that I would look to the environmental damage done to our mental landscape by advertising agencies. Alcohol is sexy and life affirming, fast food is nutritious and cheap and you can beat the house. The equivalent of the mining company replanting the open cast mine with pine trees, filling it with kittens and calling it pristine wilderness.

by KJT on April 29, 2015

Those that think that they can load all the costs of their consumption onto today's poor are just as bad as those who intend to load it onto future generations.


by Ken on April 30, 2015

And this is no problem for the Green Party to decide. I know of no one in the party, including all four of the male co-leader candidates, who belives that environmentalism can be pursued on its own. To the extent that there is a debate, it is about how best to achieve our goals, both environmental and social, in the context of an MMP political environment.

Further, there is no question among Greens that environmental and social goals cannot be separated from our economic system and policies. The thing that people like Gareth Morgan, who argue that the Greens should advocate for the environment only, just don't seem to get, is that environmentalism is simply not compatible with neo-liberalism. Blue-Green is an oxymoron. It is far easier for the Nats to do deals on social policy like they have with the Maori Party, than to compromise their fundamental, neo-liberal values, their very reason for existing. Even if the Greens ditched their social policy as Morgan wants, it would lead to no better working relationship with the Nats, for they are in power above all to protect the current neo-liberal paradigm that is enathema to preserving the planet as a suitable place for humans to live.

by Draco T Bastard on May 01, 2015
Draco T Bastard

The solution is not automatically a non-market one. Children and the yet-to-be born dont have much political clout either. Those countries which were part of the Soviet Empire with economies which largely over-ruled the market had deplorable environmental records.

Which is making the same mistake that everyone makes: Assuming that there's only two possibilities and those possibilities are market or command. The actual solution is democratic. One person, one vote to decide the use of a nations resources. But the greedy arseholes don't like that option as then they won't get to be rich.

To put it more elaborately, should we protect the interests of future generation at the expense of the poor of this generation?

To answer that question we need to know why we have poverty in the first place and, IMO, the answer to that is because of the rich which makes the question the wrong one. The correct question is: <i>Should we protect the interests of future generation with the eradication of the <b>rich</b> of this generation?</i>

The answer to which is<i> Yes, we damn well should because we simply can't afford the rich.</i>


by Brian Easton on May 03, 2015
Brian Easton

I tried to write the column, Viv, so that the argument was not dependent on the exact definition of environmentalism. I infer from your response that I did not altogether fail.

Not only do blue spotted geckos of Sumatra get a vote, Mudfish, but neither at the moment do your grandchildren and great-grandchildren. To go outside the narrower notions of economics, we don’t own but are guardians – katiaki.

The economic concept you are referring to, William, is called ‘internalisation ’ of costs. The idea is that people only take in to account the costs they bear. Certainly we should internalise costs wherever we can – you cite some pertinent examples – but ultimately we can do that all the time; hence the need for an ethic of guardianship.

KJT: Exactly. Much of the public debate is to load the costs onto anybody other than the speakers and they whom they represent.

Ken: the issue is the extent to which the Greens (or indeed any environmentalist) can shy away from the challenge of market capitalism. For what it is worth, my tradition is that one modifies the market to get what t required. What the modifications should be and whether they will be enough is the (civilised) debate I am trying to foster.

Draco: ‘Which is making the same mistake that everyone makes: Assuming that there's only two possibilities and those possibilities are market or command.” Of course, and I rejected both extremes. But a column is only so long.

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