What Economics Can & Cannot Do for the Environment (& Animals)

I’m excited to welcome Professor Jason Scorse, Ph.D. as a contributor to The Discerning Brute. Jason is an economist, an environmentalist, and advocate of animals and social justice. He is a leading expert concerning why markets fail, and I hope you’ll consider his profound research and his ability to make eye-opening sense of economic complexities.

 

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image source: Pacific Standard Magazine

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I chair the International Environmental Policy (IEP) Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and also serve as the Director of our new Center for the Blue Economy. There is a large body of theoretical and empirical work in economics on the topic of how and why markets fail, and in my view, getting markets to work better is the crucial challenge of our time. It’s the solution to most of our environmental challenges, and also holds the key to retuning America to an era of broad-based prosperity and economic security for the middle class. Most of my work revolves around addressing market failure.

In my courses and research I touch on issues as diverse as:

  • • How making information public about firms’ toxic emissions changes their behavior
  • • Whether anti-sweatshop campaigns actually produce better outcomes for workers in developing countries
  • • How FEMA’s disaster insurance program makes matters worse for people and the environment
  • • The importance of valuing ecosystem services (and why environmentalists shouldn’t be afraid to put $ values on nature)

What frustrates me most these days is the fact that one of our major political parties—the GOP—seems to have forgotten that markets are fallible and that they are here to serve the interests of society, not the other way around. The Democrats are far from perfect, but the current Administration and Democratic leaders in Congress have a relatively sophisticated and accurate view of what needs to be done to make our market system better protect the public interest. I’m working with them where I can to update America’s environmental policy for the 21st century.

In terms of how to get markets to work better, the top priority is making corporations accountable for the pollution they emit and the resources they degrade. This can come in many forms—pollution taxes, cap and trade programs, strict emissions controls, fines, and even jail time for offenders. The key is getting the market to accurately reflect the true costs of the products and services we use.

Currently, the most environmentally destructive activities often result in the lowest priced goods and services because businesses are allowed to ignore (or vastly under-price) pollution costs and environmental degradation. To put it bluntly, this is insane. Individuals are held liable for the damages they do to others, but most corporations are allowed to pollute with little to no accountability.

If, for example, we shifted to an economy where people had to pay the true cost for a fast-food hamburger—the full costs of water, energy, land, and pollution—people would be eating a lot healthier and the environment would be a lot less polluted; in addition, many fewer animals would be killed each year in our inhumane factory farms.

Our economic system is currently rigged in favor of the polluters, and can more accurately be described as crony capitalism rather than a truly well-functioning market. Creating a healthy and productive economic system requires taking on these entrenched interests and getting them to pay their fair share. The logic should be amenable to conservatives because it’s nothing more than personal responsibility taken from the individual level to the corporate level. If corporations are really just like people (as says the Supreme Court and GOP candidate Romney) then they should be held to at least as high a standard for dumping toxic pollutants into the water and air as I would be if I did it myself.

image source: Mother Earth News

While getting markets to work more effectively would go a long way towards solving many of our environmental problems (and also lead to significant improvement in the welfare of the billions of animals that we share the planet with), economics can only get us so far. There is very little that economic efficiency can teach us about how to be more compassionate towards animals, and to value their unique forms of intelligence and beauty for their own sake.

That would require a much more profound shift in consciousness, which is why I also spend a considerable amount of time thinking and writing about environmental ethics. So here’s something I’ll leave you with to ponder:

It is easy to look back in time and feel morally superior to those who once practiced slavery, denied women the right to vote, or treated blacks as second-class citizens. The truly moral person doesn’t take solace in this easy exercise, but instead asks themselves—What actions of ours today will leave future generations shaking their head at our moral blindness?

Hint: Our treatment of animals.

P.S. If you’re interested more in a general discussion on how economics can help protect the environment, here are talks I gave on my book What Environmentalists Need to Know About Economics: Short version/Long Version.

Jason Scorse completed his Ph.D. in Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics at UC-Berkley in 2005 and subsequently joined the faculty of the Monterey Institute. He teaches courses in environmental and natural resource economics, ocean and coastal economics, and sustainable development. In 2009 he was promoted to the Chair of the International Environmental Policy Program, and as of 2011 is also the Director of the new Center for the Blue Economy. Professor Scorse has consulted for major environmental organizations, and in 2010 his book, “What Environmentalists Need to Know About Economics,” was published by Palgrave Macmillan. Dr. Scorse is also the Chair of The Otter Project board and sits on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Research Activities Panel. Scorse has been vegan since 1994.

 

 

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  • Land65

    Couldn’t agree more!  Understanding the impact of the products we buy and withholding our money from companies that practice unethical and destructive behaviors is how we can go about making a difference for the better.

    Also, spot on the moral superiority comment.  I predict that in 50 years, people will look back at the way we “produce” and consume animals today with utter disgust and disdain.