Econ-Atrocity: The economics, and the politics, of environmentalism

By Gerald Friedman, CPE Staff Economist

At the time of the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, the Environmental Movement straddled two approaches to addressing environmental problems, approaches rooted in two alternative theories. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin proposed the first Earth Day to “force this issue onto the political agenda,” to promote changed government policy to protect the environment. But many of the 20 million Americans who took part in this first Earth Day were deeply suspicious of organized politics or state action. “Personal salvationists,” they blamed environmental troubles on our weaknesses as individuals. Instead of failed social policy, the enemy was ourselves: we use too much, waste too much, want too much; and the only salvation for the environment is to change our preferences, use less, recycle more, and choose to live simply.

Twenty seven years later, the Environmental Movement confronts the same division between personal salvation and political action, a division nicely illustrated by a new book, Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy. A prominent environmentalist, McKibben has written a clear attack on much of what ails us; but he misses the underlying cause of these ills and, therefore, his prescription for remedial action is necessarily off. In many ways, a pleasure to read, the book also left me so frustrated that I threatened to throw it against the wall.

What could be wrong with a book that criticizes the Bush Administration, individualism, big oil, Cargill, Monsanto, and the Economics profession? Especially when the author’s heroes include farmers’ markets, urban gardens, organic farmers, Heifer International, and the Indian state of Kerala. No question: we would all be better off, and the world a lot better off, if we lived the way that Bill McKibben recommends.

The problem is that McKibben largely accepts the mainstream economic theory that he criticizes. He writes as if our economic system is governed by the wishes of consumers so that the only way to lessen our environmental impact is to change individual wishes. Notwithstanding abundant evidence to the contrary, including much in his book, he implicitly assumes that we are already using the best technology. Associating modern life with technologies that burn fossil fuel, he concludes that “getting rich means getting dirty” (p. 21); and the only way to get clean is to do without and to consume less. Combined with a technology that produces economic growth by burning fossil fuels, individual consumerism leads to environmental disaster.

Many will even find comfort in McKibben’s message: If our individualism makes us responsible for the mess, then we can fix it by our own actions. If consumerism is the problem, then the search for personal salvation becomes the environmental imperative. But, I fear that he is telling us what we want to hear rather than what we need. To begin, McKibben is wrong about the British Industrial Revolution. Rather than fossil-fuel burning steam engines, the signal change that inaugurated modern economic growth was the creation of factories, usually without steam power, where employers,: capitalists,’ were able to regulate the work hours of their workers by controlling access to the means of production. Factories proliferated because they allowed capitalists to increase their profits by forcing their wage workers to labor harder or be fired.

In a capitalist society, we produce for profit, not to provide useful things; and we choose production technologies that are profitable regardless of whether they are good for society, or the environment. Rather than personal values, it is the profit system, capitalism, that has led to our current malaise. We subsidize the burning of fossil fuels because these feed the profits of fuel and automobile companies. Our agricultural research emphasizes large-scale, oil-intensive technologies because these favor agribusiness profits. State policy promotes extensive housing development because this favors profits in real-estate, construction, furniture, and transportation. State policy favors private consumption of marketable commodities rather than communal use of public goods to feed corporate profits. Home production, community building, and the development of social capital are all shunned not because Americans have bad personal values but because our politics have been dominated by corporations looking for profit. Economic growth has become a curse because we grow to inflate the profits of the corporations who dominate our social policy.

The problem is not in our values, not in an excessive desire for liberty, but in our politics; and salvation is not in personal change but in political action. I suspect that, notwithstanding his writings, Bill McKibben would agree with me. Since writing Deep Economy, McKibben has taken the leadership of the StepItUp campaign for federal legislation to mandate an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. After urging an audience recently to sing “at the top of their lungs” to demand federal legislation to help stop global warming, McKibben spoke of the need for a new politics to save our environment. Like the Garrisonian abolitionists of the 19th century, and many Environmentalists of the first Earth Day, he began with “moral suasion” before concluding that while personal salvation is a good goal, we need political action to save our planet and to rebuild our communities.


The first Earth Day is described in

Bill McKibben, Deep Economy (New York, Henry Holt: 2007)

McKibben’s StepItUp campaign is at

© 2007 Center for Popular Economics

Econ-Atrocities and Econ-Utopias are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.