Economics is the field of study that attempts to address the basic problem faced by society relating to the environment and natural resources: the problem of scarcity in a world of infinite wants. Many, if not all, of our planet's environmental woes are attributable to an economic phenomenon known as market failure. A market failure results whenever too much (or in some cases too little) of a good or service is produced and consumed by the economy.
What does this have to do with the environment? The connection lies in the reality that everything we produce and consume (and I mean everything!) originates from the earth. Nothing can be made by the sweat of man alone; in fact, three resources are required to produce any good or service: labor, capital (i.e. tools), and land. Sometimes we think of the resource of land as gifts of nature. However, in a world where environmental threats like those mentioned above are staring us in the face, it is becoming more and more obvious that the natural resources we've exploited for so long may not, in fact, have been gifts from Mother Nature at all, and their overuse may impose significant and unaccounted for costs on society AND the environment.
But let's be honest, consuming is fun! Nothing is more gratifying than scoring a fantastic deal at your favorite boutique, walking out of a fast food joint with a plastic bag full of tasty treats for super cheap, and getting your hands on the latest high tech gizmos as soon as they're launched (and dumping that old technology out so you're not the lame one with the three pound cell phone!) However, the true cost of our obsessive consumption habit is not always represented by the price we pay for our fast food, our blue jeans, and our iPads.
In reality, the prices we pay for our goods and services are far lower than they should be; and the quantity of these things we consume is far higher than it should be. How do we know this? Look around. The very environmental issues with which environmental groups are most concerned can be traced back to the consumer behavior we enjoy partaking in so much. We're conditioned to buying what we want, when we want it, and for a price that places little burden on our pocket books.
What we don't realize, however, is that nature is bearing the burden of our high levels of consumption. In its attempt to absorb the pollutants that are emitted in the manufacture of our products, the waste that's created from the disposal of our products, and the destruction that's left behind from the extraction of the natural resources that go into our products, Mother Nature is more than ever choking on the waste created by our economic behavior. The costs born by nature are not accounted for in the production costs faced by firms, nor in the prices paid by consumers. These costs are externalized, or passed on for others to worry about.
The problem is, these days the bill has come due, and the environment is calling in its debts. Humans must now face up to the failures of its markets, and internalize the costs that for so long have been passed on to the environment and society, which suffers from the effects of environmental degradation.
The reality that we've used too many natural resources to produce too much stuff for too long is evidenced by simple examination of the natural world around us. Or, in the case of China, the complete lack of a natural world around us. From the pollution filled skies, to the waste clogged waterways, to the traffic jammed highways, China is a case study in market failure. The world, now used to the cheap imports China is so good at pumping out, does not consider the impact that the manufacture and consumption of such a massive variety of cheap products is having on China's, and these days the world's, environment.
In the following audio clips, you'll hear three short stories about how the over-exploitation of resources is causing harm to human welfare and the environment. Each of these stories contains a market failure, usually in the form of a negative externality, or the production and consumption of certain goods creating spillover costs on somebody or something not involved in its production or consumption. See if you can identified who's being harmed, and who's at fault:
Story #1: “Where does all that E-waste go?” from Public Radio International's “The World: Technology” podcast
Story #2: “Trash Island” from WBEZ Chicago's “This American Life”
Story #3: “Nauru – the island in the middle of nowhere” from WBEZ Chicago's “This American Life”
After listening to these stories, reflect for a moment on the true cost of the environmental and human tragedies of which they told. What role does our consumer culture play in these tragedies? What could have been done to prevent the conditions in those E-waste markets in Africa and China, the islands of garbage floating in our deep oceans, and the complete destruction of an island paradise 1,100 miles from the nearest land? Is there anyone to blame? Should we blame our politicians, our leaders? The answer to these questions is: there's no easy answer, unless we want to get really personal here and point to humans' own flawed nature: the fact that we are motivated primarily by greed and self-interest.
If that's true, then perhaps hope for the environment can only be found in the responsible hands of benevolent governments, who once and for all take steps to mitigate the destructive impacts of our endless patterns of production and consumption. In fact, it is often government which is needed to intervene and correct market failures like those in the stories.
Three tools have emerged for governments wishing to correct such negative externalities. These involve three fundamentally different approaches, some more effective than others. One involves direct government control. This is when governments intervene in a market in which negative externalities exist and try to make producers clean up their acts. They threaten producers with penalties and fines, and monitor industries to try and force firms to manufacture their products in a clean, efficient way. (this is like what the Europeans are doing to minimize their e-waste).
The next option also involves a large roll for the government: corrective taxes. Businesses that produce goods that end up polluting the environment (either through their production or consumption) can be taxed based on the amount of pollution they create. If creating more pollution means paying more taxes, the companies will find ways to produce in a more environmentally responsible manner, in order to keep their costs low and to maximize their profits.
The third method for externality reduction is also the most recently adopted. A market for pollution permits is set up, where a government actually gives all the companies in a polluting industry permits that allow them to pollute a certain amount. WHAT? The government's allowing firms to pollute? Well, yes. The fact is, they're going to do it anyway, they HAVE to in order to produce anything! The benefit of this system is that the government will only give each firm so many permits, and they're not allowed to pollute beyond what their permits allow, UNLESS they go and buy more permits from producers that don't need all theirs. This way, firms have an incentive to pollute less, because any permits they don't use they can sell to other producers and make profits on those sales! Dirty firms have to buy more and more permits, clean firms get to sell those they don't need… can you see where this is going? ALL FIRMS want to become clean firms in this scenario!
The three methods introduced above are being used to different degrees by different countries in various industries to try and mitigate the negative effects of some types of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, not nearly enough is yet being done, especially by some of the worlds largest economies (and thus, polluters), namely the United States, China, and India.
If our world is to avoid a fate like that of the tiny island of Nauru, where every last resource was exploited to the point where the island could no longer sustain life, then more must be done to reduce the spillover costs that accompany the production and consumption of so many of our precious goods.
I tell my econ students a story about how one day hundreds of years ago some smart guy decided to start calling products (you know, the stuff we consume), GOODS. From that day on humans would always associate consumption with something GOOD. Today, in an era where the goodness of consumption is offset by the evil of environmental destruction, more than a strong government hand is needed. Conservation and appreciation for the gifts of nature, not insofar as they can be exploited by industry, but left intact for the appreciation and welfare of society, both today's generation and that of our grandchildren, must be fostered and encouraged among global citizens young and old.
Hopefully, this article and the stories you heard here will help you understand a little more about the economics of the environment, and help you become more educated about what can and should be done to correct the market failures that have led to the dire challenges faced by our world today.
A great website on environmental economics written by two economists WAY smarter than Mr. Welker can be found here: http://www.env-econ.net/