Logan Pass-Glacier National Park US, 17 July 2006
Logan Pass-Glacier National Park US, 17 July 2006

In the classroom and with conversations with researchers, I’ve discussed the idea that the environment is a luxury, in light of more pressing matters, such as food, jobs, etc. So, if we have a negative by-product of an activity {an externality such as pollution}, it creates a social cost that may be unfairly borne by others.  A key question is how to allocate such social costs, in light of competing interests?  What if these social costs in the form of taxes harm employers to the point where jobs are threatened?  Which should prevail?

The problem is that the value of the environment is not straightforward, as they often relate to a quality of life that is embedded in particulars, not universals.  When I lived in southern California, life without a car outside of Los Angeles would have been challenging.  My housing choices would be limited, possibly affecting my quality of life.  As it turned out, my decisions were independent of my environmental impact.  I had a 20 mile commute, albeit in a hybrid, but my choices affected everyone’s quality of life in terms of pollution, as well as the amounts of global greenhouse gasses.  Should policy affect choices like this?

In our everyday lives, we all have a set of practices that we take for granted.  In Pierre Bourdieu’s parlance, this would be habitus.  These practices are tied to environmental outcomes, whether we’re aware of them or not.  We only seem to be aware of them through consciousness or cost.

I don’t think the environment is a luxury that should take a back seat in an economic downturn, as it holds sacred the current mode of production and the current practices tied to it.  Of course, this could be disruptive, but should something that’s disruptive be avoided because of the uncertainty it generates?

Let’s assume the environment is a luxury when it comes to sustainable foods.  Organics should be toast in a recession, considered to be an overpriced luxury for most consumers.  In the UK, a Guardian article notes that consumers are less willing to spend on ethically-produced products {e.g., fairtrade} and organics, but are still want quality and are willing to pay a price-premium for locally-grown produce.  This shows how complicated markets can be, how consumers’ preferences shift, and creates implications for local production and land-use in Britain, creating challenges and opportunities for sustainable agriculture.  Habitus.

Policy can “incentivize” innovation, by enforcing standards such as those mandating increased fuel efficiency {CAFE standards in the US; CAFC guidelines in Canada}, state emissions testing, and the sale of lower-emissions vehicles.  Such approaches often are mired within institutional battlegrounds, places where economic sociology offer great insights.  While environmental policies enforcing change are disruptive and force auto manufacturers to move towards a different mode of production, the end societal results can be positive.  I agree with Alexandra Shimo of Macleans that the recession is bad for the environment, as oil prices fall, the incentives for the development of alternatives to fossil fuels wane.

So, is the environment a luxury?  Well, it may well be akin to the diamond-water paradox.  Why are diamonds so expensive relative to water, where the latter we need to live.  Scarcity.  If we just allow the market to dictate decision-making, we unfortunately will only value the environment when we perceive it as growing scarce.  Will that be too late?

Twitterversion:: Some argue that environmentalism and sustainability is a luxury, as when push comes to shove, pragmatics dictate pressing concerns prevail. @Prof_K

Song:: Honey Honey (BBC Sessions) – Feist on the Green Owl compilationlyrics

Video:: Talking Heads- “Nothing But Flowers” w/ Johnny Marr & Kirsty MacColl