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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Class vs Nature

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Michael Silverstein talks about the ways in which greater environmental awareness can displace workers. Silverstein sees a direct correlation between ecological planning, job losses and a diminished middle class.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. An economy that emits fewer greenhouse gases will be a more efficient economy, and if you think that means a more socially just society, you should think again, says commentator Michael Silverstein.

SILVERSTEIN: Politically speaking, environmentalism has been part of a laundry list of good causes since the 1960s. If you thought protecting nature was an important national priority, it has long been assumed you also support higher minimum wages for workers, gender parity, lifting up oppressed minorities and kindred causes. But as the reality of a new environmental economics takes hold, such a moral and ego-gratifying synergism faces increasing intellectual challenges. Yes, greening is certainly a more evolved form of economic behavior which uses energy and raw materials more efficiently, producing less waste, that is to say less pollution, in the process. And yes, greening makes a company or country more internationally competitive. And yes, one can no more opt not to green one's economy than opt not to computerize one's company, simply because the process is costly and difficult.

But a more evolved, efficient, and competitive economy is not necessarily one that brings about uniform prosperity. Indeed, it usually seems to work in ways that favor the few over the many, accentuate the have and have-not schism, and increasingly help bring about a 19th century economic inequality based on 21st century technology and management approaches. The dirty little secret of environmental economics is thus that the greening of the US economy, so long a questing beast of the environmental community, is by its very nature bringing about changes more akin to social Darwinism than social justice.

Environmental regulations, for example, are proportionately far more painful for smaller firms than larger ones. The near doubling of unemployment among middle managers since 1960 is closely related to corporate restructuring indistinguishable from greening initiatives. Countless unskilled union members have fallen from the middle class because of efficiency-based, ecologically sound capital investments.

It is easy and comforting to side with the angels on every issue. The pinch comes when support for one set of good works precludes support for another. Soon enough environmentalists may have to decide whether they want a super-efficient, ecologically sound and sustainable society purchased at the expense of Americans whose place at the table was tied to performing inefficient marketplace functions, or a less ecologically-sound society with a social system not so warped by extremes. Where do your true priorities lie? In preserving the endangered American middle class? Or preserving America's natural ecology? Which side are you on?

CURWOOD: Commentator Michael Silverstein is the author of The Environmental Economic Revolution. He comes to us courtesy of member station WHYY, Philadelphia.



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