Confessions of a Conflicted Environmentalist

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Image credit: Doc Trader, used under Creative Commons license.

I was listening to the radio yesterday when I heard a news story that Mercedes Benz was hiring 1,300 new employees in my state. The NC resident in me was delighted—there are so many people out of work that this will be a welcome respite. The environmentalist in me was horrified—yet more trucks driving us closer to disaster. The next item was about a rally in the stock markets—the IRA account holder in me was relieved. The environmentalist, not so much. It seems that many of us who are concerned about the environment, yet exist within the realities of a market-driven society, are driven to develop these split personalities. Is there any way around it? Is Green Growth Mission Impossible?
From gigantic 100MW solar installations in France to Google's investment in the world's largest wind farm, recent weeks have shown some hopeful green projects that could both create jobs and drive down emissions. But as CO2 emissions jump dramatically on the back of even a modest economic recovery, it's hard not to get a little skeptical about the age-old claims that sustainability and economic growth do not need to be mutually exclusive.

Living Within the System
Yet most of us—even if we accept the premise that living simply can be an alternative American Dream—still have jobs to keep (or find); retirement accounts to watch; loans or mortgages to pay off; or kids to send to college. It seems almost inevitable that we'll find ourselves both cheering economic recovery on the one hand, and fearing it on the other.

Systemic Problems Require Systemic Solutions
As shown in a report the other day about what happens when energy savings backfire, money saved on food waste or becoming more energy efficient can easily be spent on a Thai meal on the weekend, or a Thai vacation in the summer. Unless we tackle sustainability as a systemic problem, we are never going to bring down emissions or stabilize our environment. And in a capitalist, market-driven economy, that means tackling the relationship between economic growth and environmental destruction.

No Growth Economics?
Whether the answer is no growth economics (a 3-day week sounds pretty good to me right now...), an aggressive restructuring toward a truly green growth economy, or indeed abandoning money and all it stands for is not something I'm qualified to judge.

But until we tackle this astoundingly thorny conundrum, it seems likely that many of us environmentalists will continue to find ourselves in inner conflict on the matter.

More on Economics and Environmentalism
Economy Recovers, CO2 Emissions Jump Dramatically
What Does a No Growth Economy Look Like?
Is a Green Economy as Inevitable as Change in the Middle East?
Living Without Cash for a Year: Hypocrisy or Heroism?

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