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.