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Corvus Blog Post

Environment vs the Economy - How is This Still a Thing?

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

Nanos recently released a poll that you might expect would make me happy, but it really underscored a fundamental issue that the ‘environment’ faces with regard to public perception.

One of the key findings in the Nanos survey was:

“Canadians are more likely to agree that protecting the environment should be given priority, even if it causes slower economic growth or some job loss (54%).”

Pollsters - and survey writers in general - are supposed to avoid injecting bias into their questions. Despite the popular narrative, I think that Nanos and other pollsters tend to do a pretty good job of that (especially given their business model is heavily reliant on doing jobs for people who really only want a certain answer).

But the framing of the question made me think of John Oliver’s recurring segment on his Last Week Tonight show: How Is This Still A Thing?

The environment and the economy are still billed as two prize fighters duking it out, with the media playing the part of the rabid fight promoter.

So, here is the reason why I think this should not be a thing, and 3 suggestions for why I think it still is.

The bonus? - all three of these we can address, both collectively and in our daily lives. So I’ll finish with three actions that we can all take to help ensure this does not continue to be ‘A Thing.’

Why this should not be a thing

I think this apparent trend that Nanos identified of ‘putting the environment first’ draws primarily from the reality that ignoring the environment is increasingly bad for both companies and the economy. In general, for-profit, market-driven companies that are successful are those that are very in tune with the incentives and the disincentives in their operational circumstance. This means factors like increasing insurance costs, increasing liability exposures (i.e., increasing internalization of ‘externalities’) are making activities that deplete the environment more costly and less attractive.

And it’s not just the sticks, it’s the carrots. Factors like mobilization of new finance, priorities of development banks, and emerging tech opportunities are increasingly opening up very lucrative markets. These markets are not just “inoffensive” to the environment, they are specifically targeted at being in sync with ecological processes, or even enhancing them. The emergence of the restoration economy means you can even make money fixing the environment.

All of which suggests that “the environment “ and “the economy” are not, by their nature, opposing forces.

Why it is still a thing

If that is the case, then why does this mythology persist? For at least these three reasons.

Different views of the economy

When we talk about the economy, it is kind of like talking about sports.

Sure we all support different teams, but we all have the same basic sense of what we mean by sports, right? Perhaps. But some people think hockey and basketball are just ‘games’, while hunting and fishing are true ‘sports’. How about car racing? Tiddly winks? Is sports about multi-millionaires in short pants, or about young kids getting exercise and learning teamwork? The short answer is “all of the above,” but we tend to view the big-picture questions from our own personal bias.

So, when one person says that (e.g.) “Biden will be bad for the economy”, they are likely thinking of the economy in terms of resource extraction, local Canadian jobs, cross-border trade, etc. When another says “Biden will be good for the economy”, they are likely thinking about the jobs to be created by high-speed rail, or the market expansion and price drops for electric cars caused by electrification of the federal vehicle fleet. Who is right? Again, “all of the above.”

Belief the economy is out of our control

I am always fascinated not only by how people define the economy, but by how they think it operates. Adam Smith’s invisible hand (in market economies) seems to have grown to be perceived as a massive, other-worldly fist under which we all cower and submit. Other analyses see the economy as a government-controlled spider web of cellar-dwelling black-suited bureaucrats who determine prosperity by issuing a series of mysterious life-altering diktats.

The market and the government have a role, no question, but the economy is largely what we choose it to be.

If we choose to create jobs and wealth through coal mining, biodiversity degradation, harmful chemicals, etc., we can do that. If we choose to create jobs and wealth through renewable energy, biodiversity conservation, water conservation, livable communities, etc., we can do that.

The ‘economy’ is simply about how we allocate scarce resources, and - in a market economy - how we generate wealth and prosperity. Nothing in economic theory says we have to degrade the environment; nor does it say we have to protect it (putting aside the long-term sustainability of natural capital, for a moment ;-).

Polarization and dog-whistle politics

Imagine this headline: “Business and community leaders hold productive meeting.” Would you click on it? Maybe? How about this one: “Official opposition agrees with government and issues no statements.” We would probably click on that one just to see what the hell someone did to create such an intolerable situation!

I think the fundamental reason why “economy vs environment” is still a thing was illustrated perfectly in the same Nanos survey.

When they broke down the profile of people who were in favour of “protecting the environment” vs. “economic growth and protecting jobs” (their actual categories) they mostly found pretty bland correlations. Take the “protecting the environment” cohort. Age? Slightly more young people (18-34 - 61%; over 55 - 52%). Gender? Slightly more women (Women - 59%; Men - 49%).

But when they got to political leaning and “protecting the environment”? Left-leaning: 86%. Right-leaning: 19% (with a corresponding flip for the “economic growth and protecting jobs” group). The respondents’ collective answer was pretty much, “Yes, that is my identity issue!”

Woo-hoo! Jackpot! Let’s begin the Rumble for the Jungle!

Dollars are still our monetary currency, but the really valuable capital is ‘division.’ It has incredible buying power right now, and you can use it sell newspapers, generate clicks, and secure votes.

What we can do about it

So what can we do about it?

Rail at neighbours! Run for office! Engage in random acts of civil disobedience!

... or maybe do something easier.

While all of these things have their place, we often forget the power of being informed citizens, participating in everyday life in a thoughtful way.

Assess your biases

While we love to blame politicians, they are simply mirrors. Angry, polarizing, myopic politicians are not voted in by thoughtful, tolerant, broad-minded electorates.

We all have biases, and we all profess to be tolerant. But this is an age of “facilitated intolerance” where we are actively and increasingly encouraged by the press, social media, political leaders, friends, etc. to view people with whom we disagree as not just wrong, but a threat.

We have all, at some point, succumbed to the hypocritical thought, “I’m tolerant, but those idiots are not.”

Every. Single. Person.

This means some really uncomfortable questions from that person in the mirror. Are you okay with someone making money off of protecting the environment, or is that somehow ‘impure’? Are you aware of how environmental regulation facilitates investment? Would you believe that over the last few decades, right-leaning governments have invested more in the environment and left-leaning governments have more often balanced the budget?

Empower politics with your posts

This is an odd thought, isn’t it?

You might think ‘No politician follows me on Twitter. None are my Facebook friends. Are they even allowed on Tik Tok?’ I’m not actually talking about direct communication with political leaders. I’m talking about creating the environment that enables them to make good choices, and so much of that is currently in the digital realm.

We generally think of our political leaders in terms of berating them; what they did wrong, how they caved in, how they pandered, what is going on with their hair. Unsurprisingly, they tend to focus on making sure not to be seen doing something wrong, not agreeing too much with others, hiding the fact they are mandated to pander to us, and worrying about how they look in that video clip that is going to go viral.

As the saying goes, ‘Twitter is not the real world,’ but it is one of the worlds where policy is framed. When we post, retweet, forward, etc. complaints and doomsday analyses, we scare away innovation. We create a risk-averse political environment, one where you only score points by putting others down, and one that is in constant damage control mode so doing nothing is always the safest choice.

Make the economy you want

In the 1960’s TV show, The Flintstones (that cartoon about a prehistoric working-class family), they had a running gag that all appliances had a little dino-rodent inside that actually ran things.

I think of the economy like that. It appears to be a mysterious behemoth driven by some other-worldly magic, but it is really just run by us dino-rodents, all making micro-decisions on a minute-by-minute basis. Like a single vote in an election, those choices seem statistically small, but they represent active choices for a particular future.

I’m not saying that if you only buy certain products you will save the planet. I’m saying have that vision of your desired economy in mind as you make your decisions (buying, voting, investing, etc.). We choose if the economy degrades the environment. We choose if the economy protects the environment. Both options will provide jobs and growth and financial prosperity; so ‘environment’ or ‘economy’ is not actually the choice in front of us.


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