Underscore the “Us” in Sustainability

April 1, 2008By Juan Carlos Ordóñez

Like this year’s delayed spring, Oregon’s growing embrace of sustainability offers both great hope and frustration.

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring exposed the environmental damage caused by the pesticide DDT and inspired many to seek new modes of living in harmony with nature. From its early countercultural roots, sustainability has spread far and achieved much, from Portland’s strong bicycle culture, to the emerging local foods movement, to the creation of the Oregon Sustainability Board.

But with its entry into the mainstream, sustainability risks being hijacked down a greenwashed road to nowhere. Judging from the pages of glossy magazines, one might think that sustainability is all about buying organic linens, eco-friendly kitty litter and more of the latest green gadgets — all at a hefty price. As an article in Advertising Age summed up the recent marketing onslaught leading up to Earth Day, “Time to consume more to save the planet.”

It’s not just the rise of eco-consumerism that might derail the sustainability movement. Recent history has witnessed not only the melting of the polar caps but also the return of economic inequality to a level unseen since just before the Great Depression. The great economic divide stands in the way of a sustainable future.

Take for instance efforts like the Western Climate Initiative, which Oregon has joined. That regional initiative has taken on the vital goal of reducing carbon emissions to halt global warming. But reducing carbon emissions necessarily entails higher energy costs, which for many in our society will be too large to bear unless there is a mechanism for offsetting the costs for vulnerable groups — ideally at the polluters’ expense.

Compared to higher income groups, poorer families spend a bigger part of their paychecks on energy costs and lack savings to invest in reducing their energy consumption, by weatherizing their homes or buying a hybrid automobile, for example. And higher energy costs are only one place where climate change policies will impact pocketbooks. Food and other goods and services will also become more expensive.

By one estimate, reducing carbon emissions by 15 percent would cost the poorest one-fifth of American households $750 to $950 per year on average. These families already struggle to make ends meet on average incomes of about $13,000. Carbon emission policies that don’t redress the disproportionate financial hardship threaten to squeeze these families even further.

As a result, low-income populations may become receptive to the siren song of polluting industries and global warming skeptics and oppose carbon emission controls. That would be unfortunate, to say the least.

Climate change policies that fail to offset the impact on low- and middle-income groups seem hamstrung from the start. How can climate control succeed when a significant segment of the population has stagnant or declining wages and is unable to afford the clean energy technologies that are supposed to be our salvation?

Fortunately, many in the sustainability movement already recognize that a society of great economic inequality is unsustainable. Organizations such as the Portland metro area’s Coalition for a Livable Future explicitly cite social equity as a basic tenet of sustainability and push for policies in accord with that principle. And recently, a number of environmental groups have joined organized labor in calling for well-paying “green-collar jobs” that will both fight poverty and assist in the transition to a clean energy world.

These voices within the movement must become louder and more constant, lest “sustainability” degenerate into an endeavor of the well-heeled consumer or an excuse for allowing economic inequality to widen further. The “us” in sustainability must always be underscored, to stress that only policies that take into account everyone’s needs and promote shared prosperity will succeed in achieving a truly sustainable future.

Juan Carlos Ordóñez is the communications director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy. You may reach him at jcordonez (at) ocpp.org.

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