It’s been difficult to write about the expected environmental consequences of the pending Trump administration for many reasons – not least of which is the feeling that the immediate demands of keeping humans safe, healthy and insured in the present are the most pressing ones. But this is in part a discounting error – the potential for this administration to do significant and irreparable harm to the environment and all of us humans who depend so much upon it is extensive and will linger for generations. This is all the more important due to the realizations of uncertain tipping points that are occurring ecologically (e.g. Arctic sea ice loss; mounting biodiversity losses), economically (e.g. growth in renewable investments outpacing growth in fossil fuels) and institutionally (e.g. Standing Rock controversy; Paris Agreement).
Justin Wolfers’ recent article in the NY Times hits on a key point that ‘divides’ the somewhat optimistic signals exhibited from the business community and the overwhelmingly pessimistic outlook of economists – that is that the short term profits that might stem from some Trump policies favor business owners but the long term prospects for broader society – those that weigh into an economist’s social welfare calculus – face significant losses. You must imagine that the outlook amongst environmental and resource economists is even more uniformly gloomy.
The increasingly voiced criticism that economists do not think enough about the institutions and political economy, seen for example here in an op-ed on the issue in The Guardian (Feb 2016), does not generally hold for applied theories of environmental and resource economics or economic history. Today’s news of gag orders and grant freezes at US EPA, USDA, and HHS on applied, policy oriented, institutionally grounded work to make the planet more livable today and in the future are virtually acts of war.
Both these subdisciplines of economics in which I work certainly know that the demands for publishing in economics push academics to write articles that present mathematical models that necessarily simplify complex relationships. As a fallout from these simplifications, there can be a tendency to focus on equilibrium conditions (poor or wonderful) rather than the transitions themselves. Getting on the ‘wonderful’ path is tricky but negotiable – it takes careful investment and planning in these scenarios – investing in human capital, reducing population growth, balancing industrial output with the environment’s ability to handle waste, for example. Poor scenarios can often be generated by simply missing any one component — too much production, too little clean-up, too many people, too little schooling…
Now we find ourselves in a transition battle of immense consequence due to the magnitude of the errors being predicated on greed, lies and short-sightedness by the leadership in the US – every single lever that can lead to poor scenarios seems about to be switched in that direction. The administration has voiced that they are choosing a path that forces inefficient, wasteful propping up of manufacturing and fossil fuels — by removing all the protections that have improved lives over the past 50 years or so and which might have been able to move us closer to a ‘wonderful future.’ (Note: there are some interesting discussions to have here which I will save for another post in the very near future. In particular, there is some indication that many well-intentioned regulations may have actually had the unintended consequence of increasing market concentration and creating the billionaire group working to shore themselves up in this administration).
This transition path we are now setting out on can only end badly; like individual industries over the past century, the end is near for most mass American manufacturing through combinations of technology, automation, shifts in tastes and preferences, and yes, trade. I cannot comprehend how this new administration fails to see the larger-than-life lessons of big steel, of the passenger pigeon, of Kodak, and so on, but I suppose we are well aware of two factors in this blindness, one, that ‘those who are unaware of history are doomed to repeat it,’ and two, greed is powerful, and in combination with (corrupt) power (and subject to myopic voters), the short run dominates.
I also find it hard to understand how the billionaire class can care so little for its own future progeny, even if it can’t care for its fellow man: it is proposing to trade off a future of clean energy, clean water, clean air, biodiversity and its many values, healthy farmlands, healthy humans, public lands, and myriad other threatened people, places, and things over the past days for a handful of short run (very short run, probably non-existent) jobs in the rust belt. The battles are so contentious because the margins have become so vital. We don’t have the 19th Century luxury of, ignorance about the consequences of, or even taste for, building more Rockefeller and Mellon empires at the expense of our environment and human health; even the Rockefeller foundation knows it and has divested from oil (I’ll save the real oil discussions for new posts too).
I’ll stop here for now, but as you might suspect, I’m really just getting started.
Cover image credit: By Fred Ward, 1935-, Photographer (NARA record: 1109993) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons