Sustainability and Economic Development

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Can some people go green while billions go hungry? Proposing changes to the current structure of the economy is daunting, given the grim outlook on climate change mitigation. But this week’s readings are encouraging because they highlight grassroots activism from communities that have been historically passive. One reason for their passivity is the unjust exclusion of people of color from quality education. This exclusion results in lifelong and generational inequalities. As we have learned from earlier readings, people of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution. It is a cyclic problem, because exclusion from quality education breeds poverty and lack of representation in positions of power and government. Therefore, these communities cannot fight against injustices like environmental pollution. Stories like that of the San Diego Latino community fighting against the fossil fuel plant expansion and advocating for green energy are very inspiring and serve as good indicators that there has been progress towards sustainability (Barnett and Loh, 2010, pg. 2).

However, there are still significant challenges. Ulrich Brand in the article “Green Economy” highlights key institutional and cultural practices/systems that are inhibitors to achieving a truly sustainable economy (Brand, 2012, pg. 29). In particular, economic institutions and traditions such as capitalism and profit driven technology development are not sustainable. In class, we discussed the example of Tesla electric vehicles. The Tesla is expensive because it is a new and innovative technology but has public subsidies to promote its adoption because of its public benefit of emissions reduction. However, only people of high income can afford Tesla vehicles, even after the subsidies. It becomes a situation of subsidizing the rich. This is also the case in Germany where there is a feed in tariff for solar generated electricity. Because solar technology is relatively expensive, mostly the rich have the opportunity to install solar panels and take advantage of the tariff. However the tariff is funded by money collected by all ratepayers (electricity consumers). Therefore people of all economic classes subsidize this tariff for the rich.  Someone in class proposed social engineering; that is the development of technology for purely philanthropic purposes. Although I think that would solve many issues, it is hard to imagine how such an economy would work. It is a worthy vision, but as Brand argues economic institutions will have to be completely overhauled (Brand, 2012, pg. 30).

Finally, it is important to re-frame the definition of sustainability to incorporate a people- centered theme (Acey & Culhane, 2013, pg. 16). Personally, I have found myself more motivated to mitigate climate change when I read narratives of energy poverty and famines in Africa, and of droughts in South America and floods in Asia. These narratives, rather than an abstract measurement of the carbon concentration in the atmosphere, convey a sense of urgency. While scientific definitions are very useful, to an untrained audience, it is easily forgotten. Advocating for sustainability in the context of increasing water and electricity access to over 1 billion people globally is what personally motivates me. Properly designed policies are direly needed to achieve this. For example, Nigeria does not lack the technology, the resources or the labor to improve its electrification rates. However, Nigeria lacks the right policy to sustain these technologies after installation (Acey & Culhane, 2013, pg. 9). Poorly designed top-down interventions ultimately fail in alleviating any kind of poverty: energy or economic. The importance of improving electrification rates cannot be overstated; apart from its link to alleviating water scarcity, it will improve education access and health care. Electrification using renewable energy will diversify Nigeria’s oil dominated economy and make the country resilient to future market shocks that are bound to happen with emissions regulations. Despite all these benefits and availability, without the right policy, it remains wishful thinking.

References

Acey, C, & Culhane, T. H. (2013). Green jobs, livelihoods and the post-carbon economy in African cities. Local Environment, 18(9), 1046-1065.

Barnett, K. and Loh, P. (2010). Towards “Justainability”: A Colored Perspective on the Green Economy.

Brand, U. 2011. “Green Economy: The Next Oxymoron?” GAIA 21: 28-32

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