Green 101: Intro to Sustainability Week 7 – Environmental Economics and Policy

This second-to-last week of the course seemed a bit like a space filler, with basic, repetitive info that could have been combined with other weeks, past and future. Regardless, it made for a simple workload of homework! In short, I learned the different types of policies that are used toward reducing negative environmental impacts, and how those policies are influenced and how they succeed(ed) or fail(ed). It’s generally agreed that the best policies come about when governments, experts, industries and companies weigh all the costs and benefits before making decisions/enforcing mandates and regulations. And these costs and benefits need to include not only those in the monetary category, but social and environmental categories as well.

While that makes sense at first glance, I’m slightly confused as to how costs can be calculated in a social sense. What is the actual cost in dollars per person when fighter jets are allowed to fly over a residential neighborhood, causing noise pollution? And if a family never develops cancer due to the close proximity of a brownfield, does that mean that a whole new cost-benefit analysis needs to be done? The idea of establishing a dollar amount to happiness and health reminds me of settlements related to someone’s death. Yes, the money gained can pay for funeral costs and household income lost by this death, but how can you measure the emotional hole left in your life when a person dies? What is that worth in dollars and cents?

The same concerns came up when figuring environmental “costs.” Sure, new regulations can help reverse damage caused to the environment by our man-made actions: For example, in the late 1970s, the government began phasing out fluorocarbon gases in most aerosol products, which had been linked to the depletion in the ozone layer over the Antarctic. Since water-soluble hydrocarbons were created as a substitute for the fluorocarbon gases, the ozone has actually begun to repair itself. But not every natural system can bounce back as fast, or at all! Just look at the plastic garbage patches in the ocean and realize that there’s no way we can ever fully fix or clean up the damage we have down to the entire aquatic ecosystem as a direct result of our throwaway society. How do you figure the monetary cost to a bird dying with a belly full of plastic water bottle caps? The environment doesn’t operate with money, it operates by maintaining a balance to its systems.

Social costs and environmental costs should really just be billed as “the right to f things up” costs, and each person (including myself) need to pay for it with both money, since that’s the only thing that gets anyone’s attention. Apparently the idea of taxes tacked on to environmentally damaging goods (gas, for example) has been “unpopular.” And based on how high gas prices are in the North Country, I can guess that tax wouldn’t fly up here. But just because people don’t want to pay in dollars for the damage they are causing to the environment (and in the end, to society, their families and themselves) doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have to. You know what would happen if an environmental tax was added to gas? People would drive less, they would carpool, they would walk or ride their bikes to their neighbor’s house down the street. And based on supply and demand, perhaps gas prices would even start to go down.

But we all know this can never happen, because Big Oil has their greasy fingers up too many politicians you-know-whats. Implementation of these policies is so wrapped up in politics and special interest groups that nothing that should get done ever does! And the things that do work, like allowing pollution-causing factories to “trade” (aka sell via Cap and Trade) their extra pollution credits to companies that claim to lack the time and money (but most likely just don’t give a shit) to lower their own pollution. We call it a “win” because overall pollution is lessened due to these “incentives.” I call it a “loss” because companies are not doing all they can – they are only doing what monetarily benefits them the most. I’m not saying we need to get our overall pollution down to zero – that’s impossible in the advanced society we live in, with the current technology we have. But more can always be done.

 

Image from Treehugger

 

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