Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

If You Want Sustainability, Provide Economic Security

Thinking about how we can create a more sustainable world on this Earth Day, my contribution to the debate is to encourage a greater focus on providing economic security to those at the bottom of the income pyramid.

It’s tempting to see all of the systems that make up our world as unlinked, or to chose one as the primal force that overpowers all others. Sustainability is seldom seen in the context of economic development, for example, unless the arrow points towards green jobs or attracting talent or some such. That is, there’s the notion that sustainability drives economic development in some way.

But the arrow goes the other way too. Like it or not, environmentally friendly policies are seen by many as a luxury purchase. People might like the idea, but they certainly aren’t going to buy it at the expense of items further down in Maslow’s hierarchy like food and shelter.

It should come as no surprise the enthusiasm around tackling environmental matters has waned considerably in the Great Recession. With untold millions unemployed or underemployed – and tens of millions more in a state of insecurity – a huge chunk of the public has items of more immediate concern on their hands. They are worried about being able to keep their house, or being evicted from their apartment, or not being able to feed their families.

Beyond even this cyclical recession, the forces of globalization are upending the US economy in ways that has almost everyone afraid. Everyone’s job is vulnerable. Even those who can’t be offshored often have as their customers people and businesses who are in industries that can be. Nowhere is safe, except perhaps federal government employment. Even when times are better, there’s a certain amount of angst, as if we are all living with Damocles’ sword over our heads.

The best way to make sure we can create public support for sustainability policies whose full benefits will not materialize for many years is to provide people reasons to feel economic secure in the here and now and to feel optimistic about their future prospects. Then they’ll be more likely to support investing in other initiatives like sustainability.

We can’t have sustainability without social justice, and without a broad-based prosperity for America.

Yes, government assistance can help and is absolutely necessary and proper at the moment. But contrary to the welfare bum stereotype, Americans will never be content to survive like that. People want the dignity of a job, self reliance, and the prospect of upward mobility.

One of our biggest challenges in building a more sustainable world is to provide economic hope to people in bottom half of the income distribution. Yes, green jobs are important. Yes, attracting the college degreed is important and so are knowledge economy jobs. But we also need an equal or even greater focus on the much harder problem of how to provide a broad based economic success in a global age that promotes inequality, and a few big winners with many others either losers or left behind. People who are worried about whether they will have a home to live in don’t care if their current apartment is in a LEED certified building.

Beyond that, we need to make sure that environmental policies are positioned in ways that are truly designed and marketed as benefiting the conditions of the less fortunate. There’s too much emphasis on climate change in my view, which is frankly a white collar concern at present. I don’t hear nearly as much talk about lead paint in poor people’s homes or the contaminated soils in neighborhoods where too many disadvantaged people are forced to live. Light rail is almost exclusively sold as benefiting upscale concerns, so it is no surprise minority groups are often skeptical, such as the NAACP in Cincinnati and St. Paul. In people’s desires to have public transit in many cities transcend the stigma of being only for the poor, we turned the dial too far the other direction.

We can have a cleaner and more sustainable world. To get there, make sure we care as much about economic sustainability for low income groups as we do about the environment, and make sure we design and sell sustainable policies in a fundamental and visceral way to benefit the full spectrum of our society.

Topics: Economic Development, Sustainability

22 Responses to “If You Want Sustainability, Provide Economic Security”

  1. Dave says:

    Great post, Aaron. Totally agree.

  2. Curt says:

    WFYI ran a decent program recently covering new architecture trends in green building and they explored the first costs versus the ongoing costs. They shed light on the fact that green building isn’t quite as expensive as it used to be since it is becoming more common place. It inspires a little bit of hope that we are trending that way, and in the not too distant future, it will not be as big of an economic decision as it is today. Good post aaron

  3. Greg Travis says:

    How about, “Sustainability is a prerequisite for economic security?”

    Greg, in “The Human Economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Nature” mode

  4. Everett says:

    Spot on, Aaron. Posts like this are why I keep reading.

    The government does/can help without making people feel like bums through targeted subsidies. Laissez-faire capitalism is just a race to the bottom; it’s the gov’s job to guide citizens into making the best long-term choices. They are just subsidizing too many industries at the expense of, instead of for the benefit of, taxpayers.

  5. DRT says:

    This is one of the scariest sentences I have read in a long time. “…it’s the gov’s job to guide citizens into making the best long-term choices.”

  6. Alon Levy says:

    When there are serious externalities, it is the government’s job to provide laws that force people to internalize them.

    The environmentalism/security issue comes partly from the fact that mainstream environmentalism has a very latte-liberal feel to it. There’s a large environmental justice movement that appeals to minorities and to rural whites, focusing on issues like toxic waste and mountaintop removal, but the mainstream environmental movement ignores it for the most part. For example, transit activists often talk in generalities about pollution and global warming, but they rarely mention asthma in minority neighborhoods. Or, they often talk about walkable streets, but rarely even mention food deserts, let alone propose solutions for them.

  7. Thanks for the comments. A stark diversity of perspectives as anticipated!

  8. Karen says:

    I totally agree. I am always shocked to hear the too popular opinion that people on public assistance simply don’t want to work or that those who are the most economically secure work the hardest. While neither me nor my husband are in immediate danger of layoffs it could happen and when I look at the “hot jobs” they are almost all very, low salary, no benefits jobs. If those of us with advanced degree would have a hard time, what of people just out of school or with little more than a GED?

  9. cdc guy says:

    Amen, Alon. “Walkable” streets are pointless if there aren’t necessities within walking distance. And by necessities, I do not mean upscale delis, coffee shops, and the latest hot restaurant or club. If poor urban dwellers have to beg or borrow rides to a suburban mega-grocery, that’s a problem.

  10. Robert Munson says:

    Thanks for bringing up this topic; really a major part of the paradigm shift to sustainability.

    I agree with much of this tight thread of comments and only add one: not only must sustainability be economic to grow, but sustainability must also be fiscally balanced. The paradigm shift becomes more real as all three types of sustainability — environmental, economic and fiscal — feed each other’s success.

    An example of this that this audience is familiar with is walkability: it reduces pollutants, household costs and road maintenance.

    Repeating this win-win-win in other areas will be required for sustainability to trump the old order more often.

    And Aaron… the intersect of these three types of sustainability might make a good Venn Diagram !

  11. Everett says:

    One thing to keep an eye on as people continue to move into cities: cost of living. As the demand for living in a city goes up, so will price. To keep encouraging people to move to cities (the only sustainable option IMHO), those price increases need to be kept in check.

    Aside from rent-controls, do cities have programs out there not just to help the urban residents living on the lower end of the income spectrum, but to encourage rural/suburban residents of modest or similar income levels to move into the city?

  12. cdc guy says:

    Robert, when “walkability” becomes a euphemism for “traffic choking”, then the outcome is bad: heavy congestion increases emissions per vehicle-mile traveled and exposes dense residential and commercial areas to more pollution.

    One key is to provide neighborhood retail and services, as well as recreational opportunities, to reduce the number and frequency of car trips required to lead a normal family life. Folks could still commute to work conveniently by car or bus (the options in most places outside the Northeast and Chicago), but would not need to go everywhere else in a car.

    The other key, as Alon pointed out, is to internalize by law and regulation the externalized costs (of pollution and sprawl). This means higher gas taxes and as Aaron once proposed, “the mother of all impact fees”. Unsustainable suburban living will continue to look like an optimum choice to many folks until the real costs of suburban development are internalized in new-home prices there and long-distance commuting costs serious money.

  13. cdc guy says:

    “Aside from rent-controls, do cities have programs out there not just to help the urban residents living on the lower end of the income spectrum, but to encourage rural/suburban residents of modest or similar income levels to move into the city?”

    They should. The Federal government provides Low-Income Housing Tax Credits for affordable rental and HOME grants to HUD “entitlement cities” for owner-occupied affordable housing. Renters and buyers under these programs must make less than 80% of the area median (household) income.

  14. Regine says:

    Yesterday there was a segment on Michel Martin’s show “Tell Me More” about food deserts & food justice. A women – I don’t remember her name – spoke about her organization mission. At present they working with Arab merchants on Chicago’s Southside to carry more healthier food choices. This is an awesome example of creative thinking.

    She mentioned how the large corporate stores are not interested in serving some areas of the city. I can attest to this reality. Redlining is prevalent especially when it comes to access of good food.

    I remember when the Giant opened a new store at 7th & P Streets in the Shaw neighborhood of DC to much fanfare because it was the first new store to be built in the hood since the 1960s riots. That store went on the become one of Giant’s highest grossing stores – shattering all expectations.

    One final note, I would argue those large mega-stores by definition are not sustainable on any level and should not be the model going forward, especially in an urban environment.

  15. Dave says:

    Rent controls actually do the opposite of what is intended… they decrease the earning potential of property owners, which decreases the capital available for support and upkeep… which leads to urban decay.

  16. aim says:

    “Rent controls actually do the opposite of what is intended”

    Do they? Detroit’s never had rent controls and it’s the prime example of urban decay. Perhaps some examples which make your point?

  17. Alon Levy says:

    Robert, when “walkability” becomes a euphemism for “traffic choking”, then the outcome is bad: heavy congestion increases emissions per vehicle-mile traveled and exposes dense residential and commercial areas to more pollution.

    Traffic capacity reductions reduce overall emissions, but sometimes increase per-vehicle emissions. It depends on whether the number of trips they cause drivers not to take as a result offsets the more difficult circulation. On some streets, cutting car traffic causes so much reduced demand it actually reduces metro area-wide congestion, and on many others it does not increase it. In those cases, even per-vehicle emissions stay the same. In other cases, the reduced-demand effect still causes emissions to go down.

    Aside from rent-controls, do cities have programs out there not just to help the urban residents living on the lower end of the income spectrum, but to encourage rural/suburban residents of modest or similar income levels to move into the city?

    Yes. Singapore, Hong Kong, and Monaco have large subsidized housing programs, consisting of a combination of housing projects for everyone and subsidies for renting privately-owned apartments. They also have dense zoning and even land reclamation, to maximize the amount of land available for housing for residents.

  18. cdc guy says:

    Alon, in a car-dependent city like Indianapolis, traffic-choking does not reduce trips or VMT. It just moves the emissions (by increasing traffic on a parallel route) or makes emissions worse around the choke-point (more idling and stop-start at a point causes more emissions at that point than the same number of cars just driving by).

  19. Susan Pantell says:

    It shouldn’t be a choice between environmental measures and measures for the poor, CO2 reductions vs lead poisoning, light rail vs bus. All of these are way under-funded and I’m certainly not going to refute light rail or CO2 measures because they have a more affluent audience. How about reductions in weapons systems, elaborate space programs, bank bail-outs, the list goes on and on of programs to cut before you get to so-called “elitist” environmental measures.

  20. Dave says:


    I shouldn’t have posted… it’s been more than 20 years since I looked at housing data, so I can’t back up my statement without doing new research. I would ask the same of you however. When a govt desires the authority to interfere with the markets, it should be forced to show how it will actually help, rather than hinder. If you limit income to property owners, but material and labor costs are NOT limited, how could it be otherwise? Where will the money come from for operations and maintenance?

  21. Dave says:


    “It shouldn’t be a choice?” Everything in life is about choices. If you want to sell those programs, you’ve got to bundle them such that any dollar spent supports them all, otherwise you’ll lose. Tax dollars are limited, requirements are not.

  22. Alon Levy says:

    Susan, the tradeoff between mainstream environmentalism and environmental justice isn’t government money; it’s activist time and energy. The mainstream environmental movement supports environmental justice measures, but does not care about them too much, and will not spend any political capital on advocating for them.

    Light rail versus bus has nothing to do with it. It’s a transit wonk issue; aside from a few blowhards like the LA Bus Riders’ Union and the anti-streetcar people in Cincinnati, nobody has strong feelings about it in terms of left-right politics.

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