Monday, October 02, 2006

I want to say a lot more about this, but this post already constitutes a ramble.

There's a nasty myth out there that ecological responsibility is unattainable for or even deleterious to poor people. This belief manifests itself myriad ways: "Organic food is more expensive than conventional produce, so environmentally responsible food choices are off limits to the poor," or "Hybrid cars are too expensive for poor people," or "Poor people are too busy surviving to worry about recycling," or, most egregiously, "Environmental regulations stifle economic growth, which in turn harms the poor!"

This myth is perpetuated primarily by two groups. First, obviously, are corporations that make money by polluting or would make less money if forced to adopt more ecologically responsible practices. Complying with restrictions on emissions and waste disposal, they argue, drives down their profits, forcing them to hire fewer people or offer their product at a higher price; higher prices and fewer jobs, logic tells you, hurt the working poor. This is the same line of reasoning that rallies against labor unions and offering medical benefits and that lets corporations and governments turn a blind eye toward child labor and unhealthful working conditions. If production thrives, people of all classes will magically thrive along with it.

The second group of people correlating environmentalism and the plight of the poor are a more well-meaning band of (usually relatively wealthy) liberals and academics. To them, environmental justice means that environmental regulations not interfere with the working class’s economic mobility. They are prompted by their weekly outings to Whole Foods, where they notice that all the food is expensive and all the clientele are white people who drive Volvo station wagons. Obviously something is amiss, so it must be environmentalism itself.

These lines of reasoning imply a definition of quality of life that overvalues ownership of cheap consumer goods and undervalues personal health.

In the United States, having less money is fairly conducive to environmental sustainability, at least in theory. Working class folk are more likely to bike or take public transportation instead of driving; less money means fewer electronics, clothes, Swiffers, and other resource-intensive goods that need to be shipped overseas; and a plant-based diet is both cheaper and vastly less environmentally damaging than an omnivorous diet (and the financial difference would be even more magnified if it weren’t for corn and grain subsidies, which force taxpayers to fund cheap meat).

In China, or any country whose short-term economic growth is currently dependent upon selling cheap manufactured goods to rich consumers in countries whose long-term economic growth is dependent upon moving away from selling cheap manufactured goods, lax or nonexistent environmental standards on farms and factories give corporations another incentive to produce their goods overseas instead of in countries where those goods’ consumers live. These lax eco standards are supported by corporations who want to lower their production costs, consumers who want cheaper goods, and misguided humanitarians who stand by the adage that a crappy job is better than no job at all. But while pitifully low wages have only short-term consequences on the people who earn them, pollution and habitat destruction will negatively affect those people for generations to come. By the time every Chinese family has a car, river and air pollution will have already maimed an entire class upon whose backs this “prosperity” was built. True quality of life improvement is about education, medicine, democracy, and preservation of a community’s way of life, not how many TVs are in each household. I don’t think the local townspeople get to vote on whether a United States company gets to pay to illegally dump its trash in that community’s watershed.

If there were such a thing as the opposite of irony, this would be it: the piss poor environmental standards that allow more money to flow into developing nations in turn facilitates more environmental destruction in those areas as more people can buy cars, DVD players, and computers.

This isn’t an endorsement for poverty. I’m not that ridiculous. My point isn’t that being poor is good; my point is that being ecologically responsible doesn’t require that you have a lot of money, nor are poverty and sustainability incompatible. There’s nothing inherently elitist about environmentalism, even if most the movement’s members are relatively wealthy people in rich countries. Indeed, maybe we college-educated white liberals are unique in having the leisure time and education to fret about long-term global health. But if we privileged few don’t speak up for the disadvantaged many, by the time these billions of poor workers have the resources to advocate for their own environmental rights, it will probably be too late to repair the damage ecologically irresponsible production practices will have already inflicted.

It's also worth noting that the poor are the most negatively affected by environmental destruction. They have almost no legal recourse when eco standards have been violated to their detriment. They're the least equipped to financially absorb the medical costs associated with asthma, lead poisoning, and other pollution-related illnesses. They usually have the least access to information about environmental destruction and their ability to influence it. When a corporation or government is deciding to clear cut rainforest to make room for cattle pasture, I doubt the working poor have the liesure time and educational resources to fight back.

I'll address Paul's uninformed posit that organic foods are a luxurious option only available to rich people later. That's what prompted this post, yet somehow I didn't get to it here.


Tommaso Sciortino said...

Properly understood Enviromentalism should mean the same as "long tern Economic planning".

Aaron said...

I don't know that Paul was implying that organic food is necessarily a luxury good; if I understand him correctly, I think that his point was that some vendors are taking advantage of the fact that the word "organic" is nebulous and that it doesn't always signify an environmentally or economically responsible purchase. If that's his point, I definitely agree with him.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

I don't think he implied it, either. I think he made it very explicit: "[T]he organic way of life is a luxurious option not available to people without an abundance of wealth."

Yes, "organic" hasn't been defined clearly by the USDA, but tUSDA organic food is necessarily, in some substantive ways, more ecologically sound than conventional farming. Don't fall victim to the same "it's not perfect so it's just as bad as really bad" reasoning that bamboozles people into thinking that Democrats are just as bad as Republicans. But the point of my post wasn't to argue about "organic."

I'd be interested in reading Tom elaborate on his comment. Which are you making a higher priority? Environmentalism or long-term economic planning? Or are you saying that envrionmentally sustainable practices will inevitably lead to successful long-term economic results, the latter being a natural byproduct of the former? If that's your argument, I definitely agree.

Paul said...

No, Rebecca's right, I was explicit on that point, and I stand by it - and she's said nothing to demonstrate it's wrong, either.

She did, however, say many things that are rather odd, including her implication that it's not the case that "a crappy job is better than no job at all".

The bottom line - and I'm not sure why this is controversial - is that there's no reason to suppose that there will never be tension between concerns about economic justice and concerns about environmental justice in the short term. Certainly in the long term, many practices are not sustainable for reasons of environmental justice. But that doesn't mean that in the short term we should always give those concerns priority over concerns of economic justice - or concerns about any other sort of justice, for that matter. Are hybrids environmentally superior to their conventional counterparts? Sure. Should all car buyers be required to buy hybrids as of tomorrow morning? I certainly don't think so. Ditto for organic foods and organic farming.

(Of course, you could set up a neat system of progressive taxation to subsidize the cost of hybrid cars or organic produce, but that's a whole different conversation.)

In effect, Rebecca has set up a straw man; it's a very small number of people, if they exist at all, who insist that economics and the environment are always and necessarily in conflict. Pointing out that sometimes what's good for the environment is also good for, or at least irrelevant to, the economy is kind of trivial, and addresses no serious argument.

As for Wal-Mart, I don't even really object to them "taking advantage" of the nebulous definition of "organic" because I really think that's not a fair way to frame what's going on. Should Wal-Mart just not sell stuff labeled as "organic" because the definition of the word is too vague? My bottom line is that it's not Wal-Mart's job to define "organic"; it's just their job to make reasonable efforts to ensure they're not selling people non-organic goods with the "organic" label. And I haven't heard any evidence that they've failed in that department.

Paul said...

Also, Rebecca, I think one of the mistakes you're making is ignoring cost distribution.

You can make a very compelling argument - although I don't think it's overwhelming - that the total cost of, say, organic produce is actually lower than the total cost of non-organic produce, because you have to take into account the environmental costs of production, which won't show up at the cash register (barring relevant taxes and tariffs). That's a perfectly valid point to make, and it goes directly to (my understanding of) long-term economic planning.

Nonetheless, the distribution of those costs is important, too. My only opposition to gasoline taxes, for instance, is that they concentrate the costs of gasoline use on a smaller group of individuals who are, in many cases, less able to pay them. I'm all in favor of poorer people bearing costs under-proportional to the benefits they reap. It's not about ignoring the less-obvious costs of, in this case, gasoline use, it's about distributing them off of the shoulders of poorer people.

There is also much to be said about inter-generational transfers of costs and benefits - I think it's Max Sawicky who likes to make the point that talk about burdening future generations with our debts is somewhat misguided. After all, to the extent that future generations are going to be wealthier than we our, our debts will be less significant to them than they are to us, so in a very real sense bequeathing a burden to the future is really just a sneaky way of making that burden smaller. But I could digress, so I'll stop.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

In response to Rebecca I think "which gets the higher priority" is exactly the wrong question. Most people view environmentalism and economic productivity like separate conflicting values because they tend to think about GDP in terms of toasters and cars and nick-knacks produced. But there's no reason why our GDP shouldn't include things like the value of clean air, unpolluted water, and the value of a biological diversity. Include them and suddenly environmentalism isn’t something that conflicts with economic growth; it’s something necessary for proper economic planning.

Granted, many undervalue environmental assets in my view - and many value things differently than I do (like economic justice). I’m just trying to point out that the whole debate could happen under the umbrella of “proper long term economic planning”.

Ok! On to Paul Bruno and the Wal-Mart thing.

I think we should at least fault Wal-Mart for selling in bad-faith. When people ask for organic food they are asking for environmentally friendly produce grown substainably without artificial pesticides and fertilizers. Now obviously there’s going to be debate on what counts and what doesn’t but it’s pretty clear that Wal-Mart is looking for loop-holes. It may be naive for people to believe that Wal-Mart is selling sustainably-farmed environmentally friendly produce in good faith, but I generally don’t approve of taking advantage of the na├»ve.

Paul said...

Again, Tom, I just think you're overstimating the demands of consumers. I think that most people looking for organic food are looking for food that's environmentally friendlier than the regular stuff.

Different people demand different levels of organic, so to speak, and I don't see why Wal-Mart should be held to the standard of having to cater to the most exacting demands out there.

Thinker said...

The arguments in this and the previous thread remind me of the work of the statisticians and economists at Oakland's Redefining Progress Institute. They've spent years on a couple of major projects:

(1) The Genuine Progress Indicator (; their attempt to redefine the GDP in order to create a more accurate metric for measuring economic progress


(2) the Ecological Footprint Analysis (; an easy to use tool for individuals wanting to find out the burden they, their communities and their nations are placing on the environment.

If you are not aware of their work, you should take a look. And don't miss their Ecological Footprint Quiz (

Rebecca C. Brown said...

I haven't said anything to demonstrate that Paul's statement is wrong yet because, well, I haven't gotten around to it yet. (I said that I'd get to it later. Duh.)

I do believe that a crappy job is better than no job at all, with a huge qualifier: You cannot use this fact as an excuse for horrible working conditions!

We seem to all agree that long-term economic health is contingent upon environmental health. But Paul says that environmental health can be pushed by the wayside to facilitate short-term economic "justice." The problem with this prioritization is that there will ALWAYS be short-term economic "justice" issues to stand in the way of policies and practices that support long-term environmental health. You can always say, "We'll deal with ecology later; right now we need to create more jobs by building more cars and CD players!" The built-in problem with this attidude, I'll reiterate, is that the consequences of short-term economic decline are repairable, usually within a few decades; the effects of envrionmental irresponsibility, however, can last for decades to hundreds of years up to (in the case of global warming) for an unforseen number of generations. And in the meantime, we're not just harming humans: other sentient beings are being abused while we worry about how many pesticides we should use to over-feed our country for another tex years.

I'm never said anything about legally mandating that people get expensive hyrbid cars. I like your idea about subsidizing eco-friendlier practices to incentivize their consumption. I don't want it to be at the scale of current corn, wheat, and soybean subsidies, though.

I don't think I was saying that ecological and economic issues are always in conflict; in fact, I was mostly saying the opposite. I was arguing that it's VERY possible for the poor to use and promote ecologically-friendly practices, though it would require the cooperation of consumers, producers, and governments. No straw man required.

Yes, if in America we ditched pesticides, the cost of food would go up a little at first. (The cost of food would go up way more if we ditched subsidies and left conventional farming practices intact, though.) But the cost of food isn't what's keeping poor people poor. Even organic produce is pretty darn cheap compared to conventional meat and packaged foods.

If you make $30k a year, you should pay the same gasoline taxes per gallon as the guy who makes $100k a year. It's a usage tax on a luxury commodity. That's why there's no sales tax on food: you need it to live. Food is not gasoline.

I'll spare everyone my two cents on the Wal-Mart thing, but I generally agree with Paul's original post.

Paul said...

Rebecca, you're making my position sound much more categorial than it is. Do I think we should always give economic concerns priority in the short term? No, and I don't recall saying so. (One of the difficulties with blog comments is that whenever there is any doubt as to one's meaning, one is interpreted as making whichever argument is easiest to knock down. For the record, what I said was: "Certainly in the long term, many practices are not sustainable for reasons of environmental justice. But that doesn't mean that in the short term we should always give those concerns priority over concerns of economic justice - or concerns about any other sort of justice, for that matter.")

But I do stand behind the proposition that 1) there will arise many cases where, in the short term, concerns about the environment and concerns about the economy diverge and compete and 2) in such cases it will often be the case that the economic concern should win out.

In other words, you shouldn't always give priority to the long term, because in the long term, we're all dead.

I don't see why if we ditched pesticides or adopted other eco-friendly agricultural techniques, prices would only go up temporarily.

Well, of course the price of lettuce isn't what's keeping people poor, but certainly the cost of food generally is of significant importance to many individuals and families in this country and is painfully important to many individuals and families in other countries. And why is there this distinction between raw produce and packaged foods? If it's so crucial that raw fruits and vegetables be grown organically, why doesn't it matter for the ingredients of packaged foods as well? Sure, your average working family may or may not care if the price of green beans goes up 20%, but what if their entire food budget goes up 20%?

On the gasoline tax, our opinions diverge dramatically. Such a tax would be regressive and ipso facto in need of significant justification. The fact that gas is non-essential for life seems pretty obviously irrelevant to me. Some form of transportation is very important to many peoples' welfare, and it's much easier for you or I to say that people should just ride their bikes than it is for many of those people to actually make that switch. It's one thing to implement progressive taxes to fund long-term economic and environmental planning. It's quite another thing to inflict significant short-term economic costs on the people who can least afford them on the impersonal justification that they're being too selfish by driving themselves to work instead of finding a job they can walk to.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

What a great illustration of the limitations of the blogging format. I think we actually disagree on about one and a half points, Paul, but because we can't explain ourselves in real time, we end up picking up on miniscule points with which we disagree that aren't very relevant to the conversation.

For example, the comment about meat and packaged foods wasn't to say that meat and packaged foods shouldn't also be organic. My point was that, right this moment, it's not financially difficult to eat almost exclusively organic food because it's cheaper to buy organic raw produce and bulk ingredients than conventional meat and packaged foods. Not a very meaningful statement; I was just trying to cover my ass in case I said "Eating organic foods is cheap!" and someone said "No it's not!"

I don't think it's worthwhile trying to continue arguing the smaller points. My overall belief is that long-term environmental concerns should, with very few exceptions, determine short-term economic decisions, and that this practice will, in the long run, lead to greater social justice for all citizens of the world. Maybe we can forget about the smaller sub-beliefs and focus on that one.

I am interested, though, in the unrelated topic of gasoline taxes. They are, of course, regressive, just like any other sales tax, which isn't desireable. But the tax is imposed on a product that, again, isn't necessary to live or work in most communities, and whose use contributes to environmental destruction, which in turn disproportionately hurts poor people. Do you oppose taxes on cigarettes?

Tommaso Sciortino said...

We shouldn't box ourselves into talking about gas taxes in isolation. No policy is every passed in isolation. The gas tax, if passed alone would indeed be regressive, but there's nothing stopping us from changing the laws to counter-act that effect. For example, see Al Gore's "carbon tax / payroll tax" exchange. We may have differing opinions on whether a gas-tax alone is worth the effort, but we can certainly agree on plans like Gore's.

Paul said...

Yes, like I said, you can make a gasoline tax - or another environmentally-minded incentive change - more attractive from a progressive point of view by making it a component of a larger package of tax-code changes that are, in aggregate, progressive. As a practical matter of fact, though, the question is typically about gasoline taxes in their own right so, as a practial matter, I'm opposed to gasoline taxes. As they say, I'd like a pony, too. In the meantime, I think we've made quite enough concessions on the wealth-redistribution front.

I don't mind cigarette taxes because cigarettes provide very little in the way of benefits to people, and most of what benefits they do offer are derivative of their addictive qualities. Discouraging cigarette use has very real welfare benefits both in the short term and the long term.

What you see with cigarette taxes is poorer individuals being much more senstive to price increases than richer individuals. Poorer individuals therefore reap a disproportionate quantity of the benefits of decreased cigarette use. You probably wouldn't see that sort of short-term progressivity with gasoline taxes.

Paul said...

Oh, and I have to continue to insist that this business about gasoline not being "necessary" for this or that is a red herring. What matters isn't whether most people could probably get by without something, it's what impact having to get by without that thing would have on their lives. The impact might be "failure to get by", but it also might be merely "being much worse off". But being worse-off matters. Very few things are necessary to live and work in a place, but a great many things are important to the welfare of many individuals.

Thinker said...


What concessions have we made on the wealth redistribution front? Are you referring to the Bush tax cuts?

Kenny said...

On the matter of gasoline and its necessity to poor people: Consider that many of the poorest people have the longest commutes. Look at every person working in a minumum-wage-or-lower service capacity. Look at the housekeepers and gardeners, who are only employed in wealthy areas, and the impossibility of said people living anywhere near that area.

Consider also the uselessness of public transit in most non-urban areas (or anywhere in Southern California) for any significant distance, as demonstrated in Cassie's post below:

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Agreed. This is a weird conversation to even have. We don't disagree on ideal policy - we just disagree on what we're willing to settle for. Well, I suppose that's a real issue too.

Aaron said...

Just to but in, w/r/t the gas tax, I think that we should do what Carter tried to do in the 70's: tax gas nationally at a reasonable rate and then provide rebates through the income tax code, thereby promoting substitution away from gas without degrading poor people's real income.

Aaron said...

and if we wanted to get really ambitious, we could handle the rebates through payroll taxes, which would dampen the effect on the poor even better.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Touche, Kenny (and everyone else). I guess I forget that not everyone lives in the Bay Area or New York. I think you've collectively changed my mind in many ways. (What? Someone's opinion actually being changed by a blog?!)

But how can we de-incentivize gasoline use for those who aren't poor? I like the idea of specifically taxing a single product to discourage its use, and I like the idea of using those taxes to alleviate some of the negative direct outcomes of using that product (e.g., gas taxes for alternative energy investment, cigarette taxes for anti-smoking campaigns, etc.). Jimmy Carter's plan sounded okay. What ever happened to him? Can we re-elect Carter?

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Where'd my comment go? I said something about actually having my mind changed by this comment thread.

Fuck you, Blogger, for deleting my comment.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Nope. it's there. Blogger has been bad about showing the most recent page. Always do a manual "reload" to see the latest.

Aaron said...

FYI, the whole idea behind the Carter tax was that a national tax would de-incentivize gasoline consumption for everybody, but that a rebate for poor people would make up for their loss in real income.

Whenever you tax a good -- especially something as inelastic as gasoline -- you force consumers to substitute other goods for it as much as possible, but you also hurt their pocketbooks in the net because they can't substitute away from it completely. A smart rebate program could be designed to minimize that real income impact (i.e. the aspect of a gas tax that fucks the poor) at the same time that it also maximizes substitution away from gas, thus benefitting everybody.

Too bad the Republicans sank this thing the first time around -- the Middle East and everybody who trades with it probably would have been way fucking better off had they not.