2 Mar 2018

Consumption freedom and citizenship

Yasin writes:*

My thoughts are guided by the general conclusion that the nation-state is organised to benefit a minority in power that subsequently makes the economic rules and controls the means of production. Thus, we might see how people living in a polluted area are not only bearing the costs of market failure but also suffering from a narrative that favours the special interests of the dominant minority group.

Discussing the ideas on how to adapt our societal system to accept including externalities costs in the final price of consumer goods is an important task, but the solution for the environmental issue is more related to a human behaviour that should understand the need for self-control. Freedom to consume should be subject to the limits identified by Tocqueville, i.e., “The liberty of one citizen ends where the liberty of another citizen begins”.

We have to understand that our consumption behaviour is environmentally harmful and create a limitation for sustainable growth. I'm not proposing a command-and-control system to limit our consumption. It is more about which alternatives policies and institutions could rationalise the consumption and as consequence reduce its impact. A limit on income could be a solution in the sense that lower incomes will influence purchases of goods and services.

Another problem that has to be solved besides consumption is how to empower the population affected by industrial waste with tools to defend their interest. One would say more political input! But based on the theory of public choice (members of the government serving special interests) how can the population protect the quality of their environment? In the case of environmental protection, civil society organizations could provide political services for the affected population.

For instance, the Tunisian city where I'm from is highly affected by gases and waste that result from the production of the acidic phosphor, mainly used for agricultural fertilizing activities. Generally, the majority of the residents want a substantial reduction in pollution and don't trust environmental policy (if there is one).

Pollution is continuing. Industry representatives say the pollution is not harmful because the sea can absorb and reduce the impact. A majority of residents refuse to accept this argumentation, but the industry's position has not changed, and the status-quo continues.

Due to the cross-border ecological implications of the dumping of phosphogypsum (PG) on the quality of the Mediterranean coasts and the rising dissatisfaction of the population confronted with the burden of this pollution, the Tunisian Government has initiated a new project to dispose the waste that is mainly composed of PG in an inhabited area 25 kilometres away from the coast.

Recycling PG for use by industry or agriculture can reduce environmental impacts and create a new economic good. Other seemingly cheaper options are politically unpopular, meaning that their lower costs could increase substantially if the population is unwilling to accept them. Open deliberation and more transparency could inform the population and give better options.

Bottom line: Between practical solutions to the environmental issue and influence competition among conflicting interests, there is the need for impartial jurisdiction, disciplinary regulation and an empowered civil society. Citizen engagement in the discussion about the environmental impact of inefficient and visible industrial production can create a window of opportunity for beneficial change.

* Please help my environmental economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice :)


Michael Strong said...

Great to see you gaining some knowledge of public choice and more sophisticated analyses of how to internalize externalities. Without being melodramatic, my perception is that knowledge of these intellectual tools is a sine qua non of human progress going forward. Right now most rhetoric in the public debate is between those who advocate for environmental sustainability without understanding economics, on the one hand, and those who advocate for business and capitalism without taking externalities seriously, on the other. We absolutely need a more sophisticated understanding of these issues that integrates a serious understanding of economics with a serious concern for sustainability. Zetland is one of the best voices out there on this issue and it is extremely important that many of his students understand these issues deeply.

Cynthia Flores said...

I liked this... “The liberty of one citizen ends where the liberty of another citizen begins”. How come a citizen/industry/government do not see these borders? Most of the times, I think that, it's because they are looking to fulfill their own interests, with money, power or whatever their wishes are. About the government's project for PG, have they done an environmental impact assessment in the area? What consequences will this project bring? It´s important that the government comply its responsabilities by looking the best for its people and not for itself.

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