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In the discussion on how best to address climate change, carbon pricing is regarded as a principal tool to “internalize” the full costs associated with fossil fuel use. Higher prices will lead individuals to rethink their purchasing decisions. Thus, they may choose a more fuel-efficient car, drive less, mind their thermostat settings in winter and think whether and when to switch on the air conditioning in the summer. And so on.

To the extent that this helps to make consumers more discriminating and smart about their choices, it is all for the better. But a strategy that is driven solely or primarily by market signals can quickly translate into hardship, as skyrocketing home heating bills in the United States in 2008 demonstrated. In the United States, and maybe elsewhere as well, full-cost pricing and current socio-economic trends seem to be on a collision course.

Over the past quarter century or so, the gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically. More than a quarter of all U.S. workers earned poverty level [Excel] hourly wages in 2007. Inflation-adjusted average hourly earnings [Excel] were slightly above $17 in 1978, a level not seen again until 2002. From a perspective of simple economic justice, wages should be on a par with productivity gains—something that has not been the case [Excel] in the United States for at least 20 years now.


Some will say that higher disposable incomes associated with rising wages will only further drive consumption. While that may be true, stagnating wages as such certainly did not lead to wiser consumption decisions. Many families balanced their books by taking on growing debt—in part to support questionable purchasing decisions. (One can debate whether these are the consequence of innate foibles or insistent advertising that insinuates that happiness is a function of possessing the latest gadgets).

At a time of both tremendous global economic tumult and gathering climate catastrophe, will people be forced into false tradeoffs—choosing economy over ecology, or vice versa? Will sustainability happen at the cost of growing disparities and hardship?

Market signals can and should play a role in the move toward a sustainable economy. But environmental sustainability requires social sustainability. People who don’t have to constantly worry about making ends meet will be more likely to accept that prices should tell the ecological truth.

Environmentalists need to be as aware of the social dimensions of sustainability—well-versed in issues like living wages or occupational health and safety—as labor representatives are mindful of the environmental dimensions. Luckily, there are indications of growing recognition of mutual concerns, as well as cooperative efforts, from the Apollo Alliance and the Blue-Green Alliance to the very well-attended “Good Jobs Green Jobs” conferences in Pittsburgh (2008) and Washington, DC (2009).

  8 Responses to “Environmental Sustainability Requires Social Sustainability”

  1. [...] Read the original here:  Green Economy » Environmental Sustainability Requires Social … [...]

  2. I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately too, although from a different angle. I despair at the slow progress made on the climate front; it’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that many elements of ‘business as usual’ (meaning neoliberal capitalism and liberal democracy) just aren’t going to be able to produce the necessary changes quickly enough. The context always seems to be adversarial and competitive – ‘My country will lower our emissions as long as we aren’t disadvantaged relative to your country’, all undergirded by deep levels of distrust, is just one example of this kind of thinking at work. This approach seems to produce only incremental PROPOSED emissions cuts which are never actually achieved.

    To cut to the chase, if we can’t figure out how to work together in a genuinely cooperative manner, I can’t see how we can possibly restructure our economic systems and patterns of consumption soon enough and radically enough to have any impact on reducing the effects of climate change.

    As the bumper sticker says, ‘No peace without justice,’ which could clumsily be translated to ‘No global cooperation on climate change without justice.’ And surely economic justice has to be one of the pillars of that formula. It’s not just about wages in developed countries – vast disparities in wealth on a global scale are incompatible with the kind of global community we need to create to address our current woes.

    So yes, I definitely agree that environmental sustainability requires social sustainability. The latter does get left out of the picture far too often, and the kind of detail you provide here is really helpful.

    • Julie Wuthnow comments that “it’s not just about wages in developed countries – vast disparities in wealth on a global scale are incompatible with the kind of global community we need to create to address our current woes.” This is exactly right, in my view. In the past quarter century, enormous disparities have emerged in the majority of countries worldwide — both within individual countries and on a global level. While rich country – poor country distinctions still hold up in many ways, comparisons on a strictly national basis increasingly miss important cross-boundary socio-economic realities. These realities are just as unsustainable — and abhorrent — as current climate and environment trends.

  3. [...] make that world more just. Michael Renner of the US-based Worldwatch Institute, commenting in his ‘green economy’ blog, notes: “In the United States, and maybe elsewhere as well, full-cost pricing and current [...]

  4. [...] loss of nearly 6 million U.S. manufacturing jobs over the past decade and the stagnation of real wages across the economy during the last three decades are throwing more and more families [...]

  5. There is value to taking a look at indigenous cultures and thinking about their social structures. I remember my grandmother telling me that wealth was not displayed by how much things you had, but by how much you gave away. When I bring this up in sustainability committees, I get blank stares. That statement is literal and not figurative. I’m a member of a North American tribe and can remember when it was not uncommon for me to walk into a neighbor’s house on the reservation and dig in the refrigerator to get something to eat. Now, people get uneasy when that happens. The medicines were, and are, available right out in the environment. The food was healthy and extremely local. Decisions were made by consensus and natural laws were followed. These ways of living allowed our ancestors to live on this continent for centuries. Is there a way to incorporate these types of values into our current society?

  6. [...] experiments. When—as has happened in the United States for the past three decades—real wages stagnate even as the cost of education, health, and just about everything else keeps rising, then policies [...]

  7. I read ‘What should I do with my life?’. There’s a Native American Economist who turns back to his folks. Read it !

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