Social Darwinism or social justice?

January 29, 1996|By Michael Silverstein

PHILADELPHIA -- Politically speaking, environmentalism has been part of a laundry list of good causes since the 1960s.

If you thought protecting nature was an important priority, it has long been assumed you also support higher minimum wages, gender parity, lifting up oppressed minorities and kindred causes.

But as the reality of a new environmental economics takes hold, such a moral and ego-gratifying synergism faces increasing intellectual challenges.

More evolved

Yes, greening is certainly a more evolved form of economic behavior that uses energy and raw materials more efficiently, producing less waste (that is to say, less pollution) in the process.

And yes, greening makes a company or a country more internationally competitive.

And yes, one can no more opt not to green one's economy than opt not to computerize one's company, simply because the process is costly and difficult.

Uneven prosperity

But a more evolved, efficient and competitive economy is not necessarily one that brings about uniform prosperity.

Indeed, it usually seems to work in ways that favor the few over the many, accentuate the have and have-not schism, and increasingly, help bring about a 19th-century economic inequality based on 21st-century technology and management approaches.

The dirty little secret of environmental economics is thus that the greening of the U.S. economy, so long a questing beast of the American environmental community, is by its very nature bringing about changes more akin to social Darwinism than to social justice.

Environmental regulations are proportionately far more painful for small firms than for Fortune 500 giants.

Green efficiency

The near doubling of unemployment among middle managers since 1960 is closely related to corporate restructuring indistinguishable from greening initiatives. Countless unskilled union members have fallen from the middle class because of efficiency-based, ecologically sound capital investments.

It is easy and comforting to side with the angels on every issue. The pinch comes when support for one set of good works precludes support for another.

The decision

Soon enough, environmentalists may have to decide whether they want a super-efficient, ecologically sound and sustainable society, purchased at the expense of Americans whose place at the table was tied to performing inefficient marketplace functions, or a less ecologically sound society with a social system not so warped by extremes; whether to fight to preserve the endangered American middle class, or America's natural ecology.

& Which side are you on?


Michael Silverstein is president of Environmental Economics.

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