In a lecture, Economist Charles Wheelan, author of Naked Economics, made the convincing claim that the fight between environmentalists and environmental economists (by which I mean economists who use neoclassical methods to solve environmental problems, as opposed to the heterodox Ecological Economics) is partially due to language. In particular, economists like to talk about achieving the “optimal level of pollution,” which undermines the green rhetoric calling for zero pollution. Of course, I’m sure environmentalists understand the necessity of some pollution, but the connotative power of words creates tension. However, although language contributes to the disagreements, the fundamental divide exists in more rational terms.
It seems that economists and environmentalists disagree in their fundamental assumptions on time and technology. That is, economists are time and technology optimist, whereas environmentalists are pessimist. By this, I mean that economists design many policies believing (or at least acting like they do) that the planet isn’t subject to a time constraint before it achieves a point of no return in environmental degradation. This is why they usually advocate marginal changes in policy so that economic growth is not hindered, while environmentalists call for revolutionary change with the banner “who cares if we have economic prosperity if we are all dead.” And so environmentalists are doomsayers, which frankly isn’t unreasonable considering the state of the environment – according to the 2006 Stern Report, we need to reduce our emissions by 80% of our 1990 level by 2050 in order avoid climate catastrophe (although a more updated UN Climate report was released this year that may have different predictions). And “climate catastrophe” is more than just abstract rhetoric. There are measurable consequences already occurring. For example, the WHO estimates that 150,000 lives are lost every year due to man-made climate change, while the recent Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines provides a more present reminder of an “environmental apocalypse.”
Of course, many economists are still academics, so although they may be more optimistic of the time we have to fix the planet, most of them aren’t climate change deniers. In order to rationalize unconstrained growth at the expense of the environment then, mainstream economists become technology optimists. They believe that in an unrestricted market, innovation increases, which means there is a higher chance of society inventing a game-changing tool that will fix our environmental problems before it is too late. Environmentalists don’t believe this. To them, the risk and consequences of unsustainable growth are too great to justify the chances of a miracle invention arising. Seeing as a lot of our technological innovation comes in the form of a new Facebook or a new Snapchat, it isn’t hard to sympathize with the tech pessimists. This is not to say that this miracle tech will never be made, but just that the hope that is will be developed before climate disaster isn’t something we should base our policies on. Instead, we should take an active role in fixing our planet, and to end the suffering that man-made climate change has inflicted already; we shouldn’t blindly believe that the market will arbitrarily solve all our problems.