Bay Journal

What’s black and white and should be read by greens?

  • By Tom Horton on September 11, 2017
The New York Stock Exchange. Our environmental crisis is really a crisis of economics. (Karl Blankenship)

People are surprised when I say that for my profession of environmental writing, I read as much as I can absorb about economics and business.

Put articles from the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy or the Chesapeake Bay Foundation next to the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times, and my eyes go first to the latter two.

The reason is that the big economies, especially ours in the United States, have come to pursue a hyper-capitalism that drives everything, including the environment. If we can’t get our economics on a more sustainable path, environmentalism will be consigned forever to putting green lipstick on the pig. Our environmental crisis is really a crisis of economics.

Divine confirmation of my reading instincts comes from the pricey Wall Street Journal’s mysterious, free delivery for more than a year now to next door neighbors who only read it online and appreciate me cleansing their lawn of the daily print version.

If you skip the Journal’s climate-denying, progressive-bashing editorial page rants, it’s a great paper, dedicated to accurately informing U.S. corporate and investor classes of whatever might affect their fortunes.

It makes for fascinating, even arcane reading:

Waning libidos among chicken flocks appear to be messing with hatching rates for the big poultry companies.

Years of breeding leaner, healthier hogs are being confounded by public demand for fattier diets.

Sales are brisk for elevators to whisk readers from their yachts to their cliffside homes — this in the home section, called Mansion, of course, in the Journal.

And hot news of LIBOR and the VIX. The former is an interest measure, the phaseout of which is going to play hell with adjustable rate mortgages; VIX measures investor fears of market volatility—yes, you can literally trade in options based on fear. (Can buying and selling of souls be far off?)

I’m not the Journal’s intended audience, with my paltry retirement in safe funds. Nonetheless, for us tree huggers, training our green-tinted lenses on the Journal is highly informative.

There’s a theme critical to the environment that runs through so much of the newspaper’s reporting — unending growth as the unquestioned Holy Grail of the economy. Growth is rewarded; failure to grow, or to grow as fast as investors expect, is punished. How much growth do investors expect? Silly question.

One example is a July 12 article about NRG Energy, which operates a big coal-powered plant on the Delmarva Peninsula.

Activist investors on NRG’s board are forcing it away from renewable sources like solar and wind, “the final steps to undo a bold plan…to diversify away from coal and gas."

“That strategy turned out to be a drag on earnings and depressed the share price,” the Journal reported.

It’s what you see over and over in today’s economy: big money seeking to maximize growth in the short term — “unlocking the hidden value” in companies, is how they put it — the long term be damned, as well as the health of the planet.

In another well-reported piece, we read a lament from the Federal Reserve’s vice-chair, Stanley Fischer, that if growth doesn’t pick up soon, “average living conditions for our children’s generation” will not double from what we already enjoy.

Should that really be our goal in what is already the richest nation in the history of the world? And I know he’s not talking about doubling things like leisure time, or quality of life, or many other important aspects of environmental and social well-being — because the Gross Domestic Product, our official measure of economic progress, doesn’t even include those.

To its credit, the Journal frequently reports on a key factor underlying overall economic growth — that is productivity, the output per worker. If worker output is not increasing, you can’t truly grow the economy.

And productivity, the Journal says, is in a long-term decline, one that more and more economists think is not likely to rebound enough in the foreseeable future to fulfill investors’ hopes, let alone the booming growth boasts of President Donald Trump.

In the meantime, big money stalks every sector of the economy, using every short-term, unsustainable device to boost returns on investment. It all contributes to fierce headwinds against true environmental progress.

Must we really grow without limit or die? That’s like saying we must get fat or starve. I like what Canadian economist Peter Victor says: He thinks economic growth should cease to be the overriding policy objective of government, the standard by which all things, even the arts and leisure, must be evaluated.

Growth should become subsidiary, Victor argues, to objectives like peace, happiness, freedom, equity and diversity. Above all, it should be subsidiary to the ultimate limit — the capacity of planet Earth to absorb pollution and provide natural resources.

The views expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

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About Tom Horton

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.

Read more articles by Tom Horton


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bob gallagher on September 11, 2017:

Tom The deconstruction of GDP and the case for a new set of goals for economic policy are the subject of Donut Economics by Kate Raworth, a professor at Oxford, I think. It is a good read and available on Amazon. Cheers.

Paul Christensen on September 18, 2017:

Very nice article, Tom. Especially liked your comments questioning the conventional goals of economic growth. Mindless pursuit of economic growth at the state and county level is contributing to many of the ecological problems and quality-of-life issues that threaten the Chesapeake region.

Charles Skinner on September 18, 2017:

I agree Tom with your take. The WSJ is essential reading for the reasons you mention. I'm not sure a wholesale departure from the current growth-focused system is possible (or is at least unlikely) and relatively free markets do have a lot of value. I'm not ready to completely trust government or other "planners" to get it right. I think the best strategy is to change/fix market incentives. A key example is to make dirty energy companies pay for the externalities (esp. pollution including CO2) they currently get to shunt onto the public health and taxpayers.

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