The basic economics of the environment, such as resource management and conservation policies, have far-reaching implications.
Contaminating a watercourse with carcinogenic chemicals leads to increased healthcare costs for local residents. Declining real estate values can lead to a lack of external investment in a city. The destruction of ecosystems in indigenous communities can further harm already disenfranchised populations.
US gross domestic product rose from $1.051 trillion in the first fiscal quarter of 1970 to $24 trillion in the fourth fiscal quarter of 2021 – the highest GDP in history. As nations generally become more prosperous, the wealth gap between the business elite and the working class widens. According to a study by Pew Research, in 2016, high-income families owned 7.4 times the wealth of middle-income families and 75 times the wealth of low-income families.
According to the Swiss Re Institute, this gap will only widen with climate change, which threatens to “wipe out up to 18% of the global economy’s GDP by 2050 if global temperatures rise by 3.2°C”.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that since 2010, weather emergencies and environmental disasters have “forced an average of more than 21.5 million people to flee each year” and concluded that weather-related crises “triggered more than twice that number have seen much displacement as conflict and violence over the past decade.”
Ellen Griffith Spears is a New College and Department of American Studies professor specializing in environmental history and ethics. Her research has focused heavily on environmental justice, including the book Baptized in PCBs, which explores a climate justice struggle in Anniston, Alabama, a city about two hours from Tuscaloosa.
“[Anniston] is one of two places where chemical company Monsanto makes PCBs,” Spears said. “They have known since the 1930s, and the world has known since 1966, that they were quite dangerous to human health, but the people who lived there didn’t find out about them until the 1990s.”
Aside from the numerous health effects of PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls, including effects on the immune and reproductive systems, the long-term economic impact of contamination can be just as severe.
Spears said the Environmental Protection Agency estimates more than 45 miles of waterways south of Anniston have been contaminated with PCBs, affecting thousands of area residents and habitats.
“Owning your own home is the most important opportunity for most people to create and pass on values. So [contamination] significantly reduces the value of the home and, in some cases, makes it impossible to sell it,” Spears said. “But there are much bigger issues, such as the tax burden of maintaining the water system. Environmental justice runs deep and is not only placed in communities of color, but then harms their long-term economic prospects.”
The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful participation of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, in relation to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
Although her research hasn’t specifically focused on the university, Spears said she would like to see the university address its relationship with environmental justice. Spears recommended a sustainability survey to take stock of what is being done in different departments.
“One of them is what buildings and maintenance are doing on the recycling front. Second, what types of student activities are there so people know where to hook up. The other is the breadth of the research, an overview,” Spears said.
A common argument against climate policy is its immediate economic impact. Critics argue that the trillion-dollar price tag for plans like the Green New Deal would destroy the economy and cost millions of jobs. The Green New Deal aims to shift America’s economic resources to building mass-scale sustainable infrastructure to combat climate change, including social safety nets such as guaranteed housing, universal healthcare, and free public education. However, research from Scientific American shows that the negative effects of inaction would be far greater in the long run.
“The type of investment we can make now is extremely cost-efficient in the future,” Spears said. “Interestingly, it’s not just the environmental movement that’s talking about it, but certain companies have made this shift in a very short period of time.”
The focus then becomes politics. Spears said sometimes it has to start with the basics.
“I think it’s really good that the University of Alabama is paying a lot of attention to water,” Spears said. “Food is another big area. The students have done a great job of getting involved in community gardens and supporting community based farming.”
Michael Price is a Fellow of the Dwight Harrigan Foundation in Natural Resource Economics at Culverhouse College of Business. A behavioral economist by training, Price specializes in researching ways in which conservation efforts can be effectively marketed and promoted to consumers.
Price said treating sustainability efforts as competition would have economic and environmental benefits.
“I think competitions are good in a lot of ways because they have potential benefits and you don’t necessarily just rely on people’s intrinsic motivation … so you can target a broader group of people,” Price said.
In sustainability competitions, for example, the energy consumption of the dormitories could be compared with one another, with the most energy-efficient dormitories winning a prize. The university used to run an energy dashboard called the Crimson Energy Connection that “uses smart meters to track real-time electricity, natural gas, cold water, and hot water data.”
From September 30th to October 13th, 2019, Crimson Energy Connection hosted the “Battle of the Halls” where dorms competed against each other to see who could save the most energy within the allotted time frame. The winning dormitory received a “special prize from the dormitory association”.
A total of 890 million British Thermal Units and $12,142.06 saved ahead of the competition. The Crimson Energy Connection website reports that the university spends over $20 million annually on energy resources.
Price said the pandemic is also playing a role in energy efficiency and environmental change.
“In Germany, people at home have adopted more strategies and behaviors that would conserve energy during the pandemic and reported engaging in these behaviors more frequently than before during the pandemic,” Price said. “Articles have appeared in Science and Nature showing that skies are clear over Beijing and air pollution is decreasing. Well, some of that was an artifact of less industrial production, but if some of that comes through consumers or even companies… people became more aware.”
Sustainability is about individual incentives, but also about the sustainability practices of companies, corporations and public institutions such as universities. From an economic point of view, it is imperative to consider the interests of a conglomerate: money.
“What are you trying to optimize?” Price asked. “For a university, it’s the attraction of better students, the long-term commitment, the faculty. … Will this change the demand for study places at the university? Is it something that alumni or outside groups would come to and will it be a new source of funding for them?
Price suggested integrating environmental protection and sustainability into the undergraduate research experience.
Environmental protection encompasses all fields of study, from economics to technology, engineering and design. Research-driven sustainability practices could not only improve the local and national environment; they could also increase the demand for a place at the university. With more demand comes more opportunities to raise funds.
“If you can get a large number of students excited about small changes, they add up, and you hope that over time you develop habits… and you learn that change isn’t as painful as you think it is,” Price said.
Price said history proved that humans are creatures of habit. Creating new and meaningful habits must start at the individual level, because change comes cumulatively.
Sophomores Rilyn Todd, a sustainability and environmental engineering major, and Jacob Hegelson, a marine sciences and biology major, are vice president-elect and secretary-elect, respectively, of the UA Environmental Council, an on-campus conservation and awareness organization.
Todd and Hegelson have bold visions of what a sustainable campus could look like.
“It’s a long road, though [a sustainable campus] would look like net-zero emissions — not net-zero as in the net-zero promise where we rely on future technologies, but net-zero because we don’t produce carbon,” Todd said.
To achieve this, Todd listed several steps the university could take, from cleaner public transportation, localized food systems, permaculture gardens to divesting university assets from fossil fuels and reinvesting in renewable energy initiatives.
Todd and Hegelson believe current economic practices will eventually fail in the face of the climate crisis, but could be revived through innovative approaches to sustainability and equity.
“I honestly believe that moving to sustainable terms would ultimately increase the stability of the economy in the much longer term,” Hegelson said.
Todd and Hegelson have said that sustainability has long been interpreted as a compromise between wealth and earth, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
“It goes back to the idea or fact that our economic system doesn’t make sense to the real world and doesn’t apply to the planet we live on because it assumes natural resources are infinite, and that’s not true ‘ said Hegelson. “It also makes a lot of assumptions about human nature that aren’t true either, so we just can’t continue with this extractive capitalist system where we just take what we want.”
This story was published in the Environmental Edition. Check out the full issue here.
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