Disclaimer: I’m not an expert in the principles of economics. I took one course during the summer at School of the Ozarks a LONG time ago. (I mean…if you HAVE to suffer an econ class, it’s best done in the loveliness of southwestern Missouri, right?)
I felt fortunate enough to avoid using those principles for another 20 years or so, when I had the opportunity to teach students about the local environment. As teachers, we want our students to be passionate about their topics and knowing that my seniors had to write a research essay, I wanted them to understand what happens when we aren’t personally responsible for the environment.
Not every city has the misfortune to be assigned a number by the federal government for a federal intervention of a toxic waste dump, but our city did. The year I moved to this area, the local steel mill shuttered its doors leaving the facility literally as it had stood the day before while they were in production except that the furnaces were allowed to cool. It was not known widely at first about the rising cases of cancer that were becoming endemic in the area. After a bit of investigation, authorities discovered plumes of cadmium, lead and arsenic in the local groundwater. Along with asbestos, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), residents were living in a toxic soup. All of these and the many others were found in the ground and surface water and in the soil were causing health concerns.
As a class, we cleaned up the creek near the school discovering how unhealthy that water was. We gathered the trash and analyzed it; they correctly understood all of it was a product of human consumption and waste. Downstream we visited our local water treatment facility and learned how the city actually improved the water that flowed out of their facility and into the creek. They discovered the problems inherent in dropping anything down toilets and drains. We studied the processes used in reclaiming scrap metal and turning them into products such as nails, wire and wire fencing. We looked at the various parts of the 183-acre site and how it was used. We were blessed to actually gain access to two of those sites as they neared the end of their clean-up. Next, we looked at the health problems of the neighbors.
That’s when one of my students said, “My grandpa died of cancer. He lives behind the main plant. Another told us, “My aunt is really sick, but they can’t figure out what’s wrong.”
It suddenly got very personal.
Over time, my students understood the value of picking up trash, recycling, advocating for clean water and demanding answers when a community is poisoned by the very industry that provided a livelihood to so many grandparents and relatives.
In economics, there are concepts called externalities: spillover costs, or opportunity costs, that are rarely discussed until it’s too late. These costs are those which are borne by a third party that has no say in the decision making. Here, the costs of making nails were to the health of every person in the neighborhood of the factory and to the utter destruction of the environment as well. And, since its clean-up of the site, the cost is to every taxpayer across the US in one form or another.
Regardless of your stand on climate change – and that’s a conversation for another time – there is no getting around the spillover costs (and benefits).
I used to hear my husband say, “Don’t confuse me with the facts” when he was particularly irritated by the head-spinning, duplicitous nature of some news sources. I’ve adopted it because the times are rich with opportunity when I can use it. Unfortunately, discussing climate change is one of those times.
To hear the pundits, we either have NO change occurring (in complete ignorance of the rapid changes happening globally) or the planet will be uninhabitable within the decade. How do these extreme positions help us have a conversation?
Simply, they don’t.
Most of our politicians don’t know a thing about the principles of economics and it shows. Or, at least it is not demonstrated in their rhetoric. Do they understand when they fight to stay in their corner of the debate that their argument becomes less attractive, not more convincing? Do they know that their hyperbole is simply dismissed? Are they aware that when they cherry-pick one loser in the opportunity costs without having a balanced discussion about all costs and all benefits that we get further and further away from any kind of compromise and therefore any kind of useful solutions?
The recent executive order by the President will never achieve the stated goal. Stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline will not change the habits of an oil-consuming country. It will not reduce carbon emissions, and in fact, can only increase them. It will not reduce the chances of an oil spill. What it will do is cut jobs and continue to gut the middle class making it impossible to avoid the tax-payer handouts to those without jobs. And it will make us dependent on our enemies again.
Have we forgotten history? Or is that exactly the agenda? America’s middle has gone soft and pudgy. Those that are fighters in the tradition of colonists are considered extremists now and are routinely dismissed and scapegoated or gaslighted for their want of freedom. (If the media has its way, these patriots are summed up in the few optics of radicals at the Capitol on January 6th. True patriots do NOT relate to those guilty of that event.) But, let’s call them racists and conspiracy theorists, too, while we’re at it. The problem is that many of these freedom fighters look just like your mom and dad. They dress in suits and go to offices, or in Carhartt’s and feed the stock on wintry days that will end up on your privileged tables in a few months. They are you and me. They are the neighbor.
Those bearded crazies wielding their guns scare the crap out of you pasty-white snowflakes who “just wanna get along”.
Ignorance and virtual signaling have been commonplace tropes in our modern political and media landscape. Moreover, the graft of the elite is hidden behind this convenient curtain.
“Look! Over there! Don’t you see the distraction created for you so you won’t want to discuss the real problem?”
We must call it what it is: deception. Let’s challenge those who want to see the problems in either-or views because, let’s face it, nothing is literally that simple. We must insist on transparency to understand the motives of those who make decisions.
Get the facts. Let’s bring back some kind of real dialogue.
Let’s be American again.