Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Issues of Sustainability"

Okay, you got me, Anonymous...

I was taking a stroll down Memory Lane this fine morning, rereading old posts of mine, and to my great surprise there's a post down there with FIVE comments! Two are from my old friend Kirbside, but three are from Anonymous, who says, "I'm curious to get your opinion on issues of sustainability." He or she goes on to add,

Sustainability doesn't seem to be a very popular topic among conservatives. There appears to be an attitude that "God will sort it all out", so we don't need to worry about carbon emissions, or resource depletion, or infrastructure renewal, or ecological impacts, or even garbage collection.


From what I gather, it goes something like this: existing business structures don't want to change their established methods, so they oppose sustainable technologies and deny deny deny environmental impacts. They then convince the God-wing of the party that it's all hogwash and that God is in control.

I -get- that. Nobody wants to be forced to do something that is costly. It's up to people to demand sustainable technologies from businesses, to essentially speak with their wallets. The thing I don't get is why Republican/Conservative leaders don't actively promote sustainability, rather than ignore the issue? Why don't they care?

First let me correct a misconception: the "God-wing" is not anti-environment; in fact, serious Christians (I won't speak for other sects) believe that humans are created by God, somehow (many, including me, believe that this creation took place in an incremental fashion - i.e., through evolution, a process likewise created by God), in God's image, with an inescapable duty to be stewards of the rest of Creation. What we conservatives (taking that subgroup of American humanity apart from any "God-wing" stuff) often object to is the contention that the environment is either coequal with or actively trumps human interests. We believe that the human sphere is the business of the human sphere, and that the environment is the backdrop against which we (religious reference coming up) live and move and have our being - a backdrop that adds great value and often beauty, without which the play is impossible to produce, and that must be maintained appropriately, but which is not as important as the actors.

That said, we who believe that God takes an active interest in God's creation do tend to believe that God looks after not just us but our environment (and all aspects of creation, whether or not they benefit or affect humans). But that's not exactly the same as "God will sort it all out," since Christians believe that we are God's hands. (We just don't believe we're God's only hands. We're not that arrogant.)

So - sustainability. Depending on your definition, businesses large and small are all about sustainability; none, except those absurd "businesses" that mistook an exit strategy for a business plan, intend to put themselves out of business. Therefore it makes no sense for them to kill whatever is their golden goose - to destroy that which makes their business possible. Sometimes it's more clear than others how to create sustained production - in timber, for instance, where it's pretty easy to see that planting trees to replace logged trees helps to maintain production, and a healthy environment for those trees one day to be logged themselves. And often, growth in both knowledge and technology leads to improvement in the area of sustainability; take timber again: hand-cutting used to be the only method available for logging, and trees could be chosen one by one for their grain, size, etc. Then, with mechanized logging, clearcutting was the only efficient means, and ALL trees fell - not pretty, and less sustainable, but necessary to meet demand. Now, it's again becoming possible to do selective logging, which improves the logged forest's health because it more closely mimics nature, but is still capable of meeting demand - partly because on the demand side, engineered wood products are in much wider use than ever before, since growing super-fast-maturing trees, loggable in ten years or so, in farmlike fields, and which are then chipped and made into strong building material, is another innovation of the last few decades.

In oil and gas, it used to be that only the oil that basically bubbled to the surface was produceable. Technology grew with demand, and deeper and deeper resources became reserves (a resource is something you know exists; "reserves" is a subset of resources that denotes produceable resources, and is very closely tied to price). Oil and gas drilling has a small footprint and a small ecological cost, compared with oil and gas refining - but even though refining technology hasn't been allowed to proceed very readily in this country, air quality, for instance, around refineries has drastically improved via technological advances. (Refinery footprints haven't shrunk; I assume this is because refineries know they'll never get land back if they relinquish it, and therefore keep on occupying it whether or not their processes have or could have decreased in size.)

Mining removes bulky material - ore - from often scenic places. That stinks, I say as a person who likes going to scenic places. But coal (for instance) is an overwhelmingly important energy source in this country and elsewhere; it's energy-dense, easy and safe to transport, easy to burn to create electricity. It will continue to be produced until a better thing comes along (and no, solar and wind aren't "better" in any respect that counts in this discussion). Mining companies strip-mine where that's the most efficient way to get at the ore. But erosion problems downstream as well as public relations concerns cause them to enter an area only with a rehabilitation plan in place. And miners' working conditions have dramatically improved as well. There is a societal cost to to mining; but it's not the same cost as it was even fifty years ago.

At this point, Anonymous is hopping up and down, waiting for a chance to point out that many of these changes wouldn't have taken place if not for tighter environmental regulations and collective bargaining and so forth. I think the timing would have been different - probably quite a lot different in some cases - but that these same changes would have taken hold in the absence of governmental and union involvement, if the marketplace had been allowed to work. Here's why:

The capitalist marketplace of the conservative is not just a place where things are bought and sold; it's - very importantly - a marketplace of ideas as well. Good ideas are not judged by some Idea Board; they're evaluated by the innumerable entities, individual and corporate, that make up the marketplace, and the winners are, tautologically, the ones that win. "Organic farming" is an old idea made new again, and in the Western marketplace of ideas, it's taking hold. (It'd be a recipe for global famine if its staunchest supporters got their way and it were implemented everywhere, but heck, what's affluence for if not to indulge your personal preferences? No harm in having organic food in the produce bins and on the shelves, as long as less expensive, high-quality "non-organic" options are available for those who can't afford or don't choose the "organic" stuff.)

Hybrid cars - finally, an option better than the plug-in one! It used to make me crazy that so many electric-car advocates seemed to believe that the magical stuff that comes out of outlets in their homes was free, both to them and to the environment.

And generally improved environmental conditions - this, again, is an idea of the marketplace that has resulted in, for instance, BP's "It's a start" campaign. Regulation has forced more stringent environmental standards (sometimes ridiculously more stringent, down to "below detection limits" for compounds never definitively shown to be harmful), but it's the marketplace that makes companies take the step of doing better than the regs.

If "environmentalists" embraced the idea marketplace (they use it, certainly) and largely abandoned regulation-seeking, there'd be many more conservatives who would join their ranks, working assiduously to bring those ideas to fruition. Who likes the thought of living in nineteenth-century London with its yellow-gray sulfurous fogs? But convince - don't force - and your ideas have sustainable force. Or else they're not worth implementing.

No comments: