When I was a sophomore in high school, my dad talked to me about opening a debit card. I said sure—having one of those plastic cards felt like the first step towards becoming an adult. So we planned a trip to the bank and my dad told me to bring any cash that I wanted to deposit.
Ever since I was a kid, whenever my parents gave me some pocket change or I was given an iTunes gift card, I would stow it away, leaving it untouched. I was a serial saver, hiding every dollar in a pouch I kept (no joke) under a purple fedora, saving it all for a rainy day. So when we went to the bank, I brought a little over $2,000 in a suspiciously large amount of small bills to deposit.
In hindsight, my stockpiling of funds (under a ridiculously ugly hat) is hilarious. But I feel like it was valid. I’m not alone, either: Money is a source of stress for most people on the planet.
Money scares me. Debt frightens me. And don’t even get me started on the stock market. As a result, I never really had any initiative to learn about the economy until I was forced to in high school macroeconomics.
The economy is a big, nebulous concept. It has a thousand different measures of strength: the unemployment rate, GDP, Dow Jones, NASDAQ, the CCI, the PMI, and many other acronyms. And while I honestly only have a surface-level understanding of the economy, I do know that most Americans view the relationship between the economy and the environment as a zero-sum game. We can only invest in one, the government can only prioritize one, and choosing one jeopardizes the other.
This is the message of the Trump administration. The White House’s “Energy and Environment” page says that, “American energy policy must balance environmental protection with economic growth in order to encourage innovation, discovery, and prosperity.” Okay, yes that’s a great message. But President Trump’s actions tell a different story.
Whenever environmental regulation is pushed back, politicians love to say they’re doing it for the economy. In 2017, the president proposed slashing the EPA’s budget by 31%. The administration is rewriting the Waters of the U.S. rule, reducing protections for rivers, marshes, and other aquatic environments at high risk from pollution, to make way for upstream contaminants from manufacturers. The administration is lowering the fuel emissions standards for vehicles allowed to run in the U.S., all for the sake of the auto and fossil fuel industries.
How exactly do these new rules benefit the American economy? Here’s the kicker: they don’t. We are entering an age where we must start playing the long game—reliance on fossil fuels is an inherently short-term and small-minded viewpoint. This focus on deregulation helps fossil fuel companies and manufacturers in the short-term, but polluting our air and waters has implications far beyond affecting ecosystems.
Externalities are the side effects or unplanned consequences of an economic activity that usually aren’t reflected in the product’s on-paper monetary cost. For instance, an externality of a coal plant generating electricity could be the air pollution it generates, which we definitely do not pay for with our electric bills. The externalities not just of the fossil fuel industry but every economic sector is almost never quantified. But someone, somewhere, is most definitely paying the price.
We can do better. Currently, the 276 million registered vehicles in the U.S. are mostly powered by gasoline, and both the automobile and fossil fuel industries have enormous pull. The auto industry makes up around 3% of the U.S.’ annual GDP, while fossil fuels comprise 7.6%. Fossil fuels built the modern economy, but is this the only way for the U.S. to continue to be a global economic superpower?
Heck no. American politicians and the public have one view of economic success: the free market and environmental deregulation. This is the capitalist system, they say, take it or leave it. Undeniably, both the auto and fossil fuel industries provide important jobs and contribute heavily to the American economy. Because of how our economy is currently set-up, the two are firmly intertwined, but at a detriment to the environment.
We are at a turning point. Times are a-changin’, let us present a new economic argument. On paper, the economy is doing great. The unemployment rate is tiny at 3.6%. GDP is still rising, with an estimate of 1.9% for the third quarter. But these numbers do not translate into the emotions the American public are feeling. Even though these numbers are beautiful, more Americans than ever feel insecure about their positioning in our economy. Many believe that our current economic growth only benefits people at the top of the socioeconomic pile—they are not seeing direct benefits.
Americans are feeling economically insecure. Automation and cyberattacks are on the rise. The trade war with China makes investors uneasy. And on top of it all, the climate crisis severely threatens long-term economic productivity. Tracking the country’s GDP or watching the Dow rise and fall is no longer enough for the American public. We are in need of a new way to understand how our economy functions and, more specifically, how the environment and the economy mix and overlap.
We need more efficient energy grids. We need new agricultural solutions. We need to have contingency plans for possibly displaced communities living on the coasts. We need ideas for how to measure and dispense information about how pollution is impacting both our environments and public health. Our economy is not being appropriately valued for all of these externalities of climate change.
Environmental economics is a relatively new field, but it’s going to be crucial to understanding how we as a society and a growing economy are going to evolve in the near future. A new measurement must be presented, one more accurate than GDP or the unemployment rate, that takes environmental and public health externalities into consideration. The economy is about more than money—it’s about how that profit is generated and the communities it impacts along the way to generation.
The climate is changing, and our economy must change with it. Yes, altering the basis of our economy will bring instability. But sticking with our current fossil fuel-based system will be even more disastrous. The insecurity I felt around money as a kid will grow with me if our economy doesn’t begin to prioritize environmental health. I am one of the young Americans that will be inheriting the American economy—I just hope that there’s a sustainable one left for my generation.
Katherine Shok writes the Wednesday column on environmental politics and justice. Contact her at [email protected].