February 14, 2018

Sustainability through the Economic Lens

This is Part II of a three-part series on intersectional sustainability. Part I, focusing on the environmentalism perspective, ran Jan. 25.

Money. Economy. Finances. Investment. The list of buzzwords goes on, bringing up the discomfort of topics that most people don’t really like to talk about, including myself. However, the role our local and global economies play in society makes it an important topic in the conversation on sustainability.

Currently, our economy prides itself on growth and consumerism. This article doesn’t absolutely deny capitalism, but instead challenges the current consumer culture capitalism tends to carry and how that plays a part in social and environmental efforts.

These ideals pose some truly detrimental threats to our environment.

Our socio-economic status, dictated by the structures of capitalism, has a direct impact on our community’s environmental health and therefore the community members’ health. Such is manifested in examples right here in Seattle.

According to a lecture given by Chris Hilton, the urban partnership director for The Nature Conservancy in Washington, the concentration of tree canopies in Seattle varies and generally lessens in marginalized neighborhoods. This leads to dramatic health setbacks in terms of water pollution and carbon emission concentration. This is a systemic issue that’s rooted in social and economic injustice and inequity.

Rachel Heath, assistant professor of economics, shared her research on the impact of the global market in Bangladesh. It has evolved into garment manufacturing that has provided more job opportunities for Bangladeshi women.

These factories don’t follow the fair trade model that’s often associated with sustainability; however, Heath’s research has shown benefits for women in particular, providing them with wages, job opportunities, and social changes.

“Maybe we’re not thinking about getting to a perfect, just society, but more incremental change towards, kind of, welfare improvement,” Heath said.

Nonetheless, a capitalist economy drives the forces of globalization, looking for the cheapest option for mass production to feed the needs of, holistically, more advantaged people. It seems to be undeniable that there’s a true element of exploitation in even just this one example of economically unsustainable industry.

While “sustainable” isn’t necessarily a term used in economic studies often, as noted by Heath, “It’s not rosy or a perfect outcome, but steps to development are in fact, at least kind of, helping people in developing countries.”

This is an issue of consumerism to a fairly large extent; they are those who purchase and invest in these products.

“The global consumer economy not only uses more resources than the planet can sustain, but it encourages waste and obsolescence,” UW political science professor Lance Bennett wrote in an email.

Economic growth hurts our environment. Our natural resources aren’t equipped to regenerate at the pace of their extraction.

“Most of our environmental problems and many other social problems, from health to migration, can be addressed by rethinking our economic models,” Bennett wrote. “For example, unrealistic and environmentally toxic economic growth goals can be replaced by steady state economic models that operate within resource and waste limits.”

This is why it’s important to analyze the effects of our economic system and how our surrounding environment responds. One strategy includes applying cost-benefit analyses of our natural and nonrenewable resources to face the facts of how our economic priorities are depleting our resources and threatening the success and sustainability of economic growth.

It’s vital to understand and acknowledge the severe human and environmental consequences that accompany economically unsustainable practices, including our current system that encourages constant economic growth. Realistically, an economy cannot grow forever, and it’s just a matter of reaching a point when our resources can no longer uphold our current economic system.

The economy isn’t an easy topic to comprehend, change, take advantage of, be aided by, etc., but it’s important to consider what we can do, whether in our everyday habits or just our thoughts in regard to the economy we live in, in response to the information we are fed about the development of our local and global economies.

“Corporate responsibility and consumer consciousness are keys to a more sustainable future,” Bennett wrote.

It’s a good time to be alive and consider the aspects in our lives that can contribute to positive change in our local and global communities.

Reach writer Zoe Shadan at wellness@dailyuw.comTwitter: @zoeshadan