An Environmental Ethic for the Common Man

I think the main challenge to environmentalism is to get the majority of people to care about what is happening to our environment. The way to do this is by tying environmentalism to economics. Currently there is very little economic importance placed on preserving our environment. For example, energy companies do not factor in the costs of pollution clean up into their prices. There are several steps we can take to tie environmentalism to the economy including government subsidies, eco-taxes, and setting caps on pollution and creating markets where it can be traded. I will use the Kaufmann book, a case from Taking Sides, and Powerdown to make this case.

It may be easy for people like me, a liberal college student, to sit back and ponder the moral reasons why we need to take care of our environment but it is hard to make philosophical and moral arguments to the common man and corporations in this country. We as a nation are far too concerned with the bottom line and maximizing profits to have a widespread moral ethic on environmentalism. This is why we need to make environmentalism more tangible by putting a monetary price on it. I realize this creates lots of concerns such as, how can we truly put a value on the existence of a species? Despite the concerns this approach may bring about, I think it will do a lot more good than harm and will bring environmentalism into the mainstream rather than a fringe movement in the U.S.

I think that moral reasons are enough to get motivated to conserve and pollute less, however, when faced with moral or economic choices the majority of individuals and companies will favor the economic side. To bring about change in this country it is vital that economics be tied into environmentalism. Without significant economic value attached to our resources we take them for granted. We expect that there will be fresh water to drink or enough trees to cut down but by doing so we undervalue our natural resources. This undervaluing provides an incentive to misuse and deplete the resources (Easton 43). If we could see the monetary value of these natural services we will be more likely to appreciate them. This argument is also made of college students, it is said if they are made to pay for their own education they will strive to get the most out of it. Whereas if the parents pay for it slacking off doesn’t seem like a big deal.

Government subsidies have long been used to encourage behavior that the government sees as desirable or to discourage undesirable behaviors and should be used to further environmental causes. It is hard to ask a farmer to curtail his water usage in Southern California when that could mean high investment costs of new irrigation technologies or a decreased crop yield. But if the government rewarded people and companies for conserving then it would be in the farmers best interest. However, government subsidies are currently used in many perverse ways, there are numerous subsidies in place today that allow the price of resources such as fuels, timber, and water to be far lower than they should be, which encourages increased consumption. These perverse subsidies are found in many sectors of industry such as, agriculture, energy, road transportation, water, fisheries, and forestry and it is estimated by leading scientists that between $900 billion and $1.4 trillion are spent on them each year ( Transferring the money from these destructive subsides to other more environmentally sound causes would be a huge step in the environmental movement. Renewable energy sources, public transportation, and more efficient technologies could all be subsidized instead of environmentally unsound industries.

Unfortunately, our government, especially the current administration, is far too concerned with keeping industries happy. Politicians are not willing to risk losing votes anywhere and are for the most part spineless to stand up against industry and demand some changes. To fully alleviate the problems of overly powerful corporations and spineless politicians would be a monumental and unrealistic task. However, many European nations have been able to impose regulations on industry to control their environmental degradation.

The creation of pollution markets, similar to the stock market, is a huge step forward in the task to intertwine economics and environmentalism. The European Union has created a carbon dioxide market which sets a cap of total carbon dioxide production and allows companies to trade credits allowing a certain amount of pollution amongst themselves. A company can buy up a lot of pollution credits but it would be at an increasing cost and wouldn’t make financial sense. This market is effective because now companies have to choose to purchase extra pollution credits or make the necessary upgrades to their facilities to cut back on their pollution. Without a market a company is not willing to invest the money to upgrade their facilities, but now that they have to pay for their pollution it makes financial sense to do so. The market takes what used to be an externality, pollution, and turns it into part of the production costs (Kaufmann 352). According to some estimates “the worldwide market in CO2 could be worth tens of billions of dollars (euros) in a few decades” ( The main threat to the worldwide carbon market is the refusal of the United States to impose a fixed target of carbon dioxide emissions. Many environmentalists argue that a pollution credit system is a right to pollute but pollution at some level is an unavoidable part of production, especially if we are to produce affordable goods. It may be possible to produce goods with no environmental costs but the price of the goods would skyrocket and the average consumer would never agree to that (Kaufmann 354). Pollution credits make the cost of pollution matter to the companies that produce it, therefore it is their best financial interest to minimize that pollution.

One argument against a market based approach to environmentalism is that a market is anthropocentric and it gives no values to the rights of animals. This is an argument that I understand but does not make any sense to the majority of Americans. Humans dominance over our environment is an unquestioned idea in America and to question it would bring ridicule from many. What we are trying to do is increase awareness of environmentalism not rearrange the moral outlook of an entire country. To do that would be impossible, that is why we must work with what we have, a society driven and obsessed with money. It is much easier to tie environmentalism to the economy than it is to instill an environmental ethic in our population. I agree that ideally we would work to instill an environmental ethic, but by the time that is accomplished it may be too late.

Another method of influencing industrial and private purchasing is through eco-taxes. Eco-taxes are intended to make the price of products and services reflect their full environmental cost. Eco-taxes seem like an obvious policy to adopt, why should the taxpayers pay for pollution cleanup when it is the industries that create the pollution? People in this country get bent out of shape about having to pay for illegal immigrants medical bills yet, the burden of illegal immigrants on American taxpayers is paltry when compared to the burden of industrial externalities. Taxing carbon emissions, dumping in landfills, and nonrenewable energy sources provides an incentive to avoid using lots of dirty energy or producing lots of waste. As things cost more people pay more attention to their use and try to minimize costs. These taxes also produce a sizeable amount of income for the government.

Transportation is one glaring area in which governmental policies could bring about huge strides. It is especially important that government take a role here since transportation is the world’s fastest growing form of energy use. It currently accounts for 30 percent of world energy use and 95 percent of oil use (Roberts 56). The private car accounts for the largest area of growth in the transport sector as five times as many cars were produced in 2002 as in 1950. The U.S. is the greatest culprit of transportation emissions as one fourth of the world’s cars operate in the U.S. and are responsible for 40 percent of our nation’s oil use. The United States saw a large jump in gasoline efficiency as a result of raising the C.A.F.E standards after the gas shortage of the 1970’s. Car companies were able to improve their fuel efficiency more than they thought possible. Yet, the government today is reluctant to mandate any large rise in the C.A.F.E standards because of automobile industry lobbyists despite the fact that raising the C.A.F.E standards by 2.7 mpg could save enough oil as we import from the Persian Gulf (Roberts 153). Not only are more cars being made today but they are being made bigger and more powerful. If the size of cars had remained constant since 1981 the fuel efficiency of U.S. cars would be one third higher than it is today (Roberts 232). This trend shows no sign of slowing down either. At the current rate half of the world’s passenger vehicles will be SUVs or other trucks by 2030.

While some subsides currently in place encourage the buying of hybrid automobiles they are hardly enough. The government should impose an ecotax on all large inefficient SUVs and trucks. Instead, they have done just the opposite by passing a federal business tax credit for SUV purchases. I can not understand such perverse subsidies at all. It is infuriating to see the government pander to big business’s and short term growth and ignore the greater societal good and long term well-being. Many studies have shown that over the next 10-15 years the fuel economy of new U.S. automobiles could be increased by as much as a third. This is a huge step the government could take. In addition to mandating more efficient vehicles, the government could also support more public transportation. It was only a century ago that the U.S. led the world in public transit. However, after WWII the government focused on constructing roads and highways. No incentives are in place to use public transport or to ride a bike or walk. I feel it is the governments place to encourage less harmful transportation and mandate our automobile industry to clean up their act.

There are a variety of methods the government could use to protect our environment. Subsidies, eco-taxes, and creating a pollution market would not only save the government money but would cut down on energy use and strengthen the market for more sustainable goods. It seems silly that the government does not impose these methods in force, but many politicians believe it is not the place of the government to regulate these matters. They would argue the consumer shapes the market and it is up to them. However, most consumers are either unknowledgeable about environmental issues or unwilling to pay the extra costs for green goods and services. It is the governments responsibility to ensure our future as a nation and a world. We have elected these people to look out for us so it is their duty to protect our health by limiting pollution and preserving our environment.


Easton, Thomas A.
2005 Taking Sides. Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill.

2005 Fledgling Carbon Market Starts to Fly. Electronic Document,, accessed May 22, 2005

2005 Save or Delete? A last chance to save the world’s ancient forests. Electronic Document,, accessed May 25, 2005

Kaufmann, Frederik
2003 Foundations of Environmental Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Roberts, Paul
2004 The End of Oil. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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