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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

THE key question
August 26, 2012 - 6:57pm

When students arrive on campus (as they are currently), it's impossible to know where each is eventually headed.  Some will go into the arts (although most won't).  Some will go into politics (ditto). Many will to into business or the professions, although more won't. But the one thing of which we can be sure is that each student -- whether (s)he graduates or not, regardless of major or degree -- will become part of the economy.

Which is why (in addition to the fact that the USA was the first country to be built largely around an economic system) that the nature and purpose of the economy is probably the key question of our culture, made more urgent by our time.  It's a question I've posed to many economics professors (and gotten only puzzled looks in reply): what, exactly, is an economy for?  What is it supposed to produce, and why is that the objective (much less the goal)?

So it was with great pleasure that I discovered a little volume by John deGraaf and David Batker: What's the Economy For, Anyway?

The truly implicit aspects of any culture are the elements most difficult to discuss, but John and Dave (as they refer to themselves in the text) do a remarkably good job.  And they posit an answer to their title question which helps clarify not just the general idea of sustainability, but the triple aspect of sustainability which is often difficult to explain.

Quoting Gifford Pinchot (the first chief of the US Forest Service), they posit that the purpose of an economy is to provide the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest run.  Kind of Benthamite utilitarianism with an added chronological dimension. 

The greatest good -- economic sustainability (and ultimate efficiency, with apologies to Wilfredo Pareto).

To the greatest number -- social sustainability, because if the good is too narrowly distributed, eventually the peasants pick up their torches and their pitchforks.

For the longest run/time -- environmental sustainability, because it's the constraints of the environment which historically have brought economies and societies to an end.

DeGraaf and Batker have done a commendable job of discussing their topic in terms any first-year Greenback student can easily understand.  So it there's a better text for a first-year common experience, I don't know what it might be.  Assigning it might raise objections from the "USA! USA! USA!" crowd, because the truth of the matter is thatour domestic economy does a remarkably poor job of achieving its rational objectives, but if each entering student were to read and understand this material, their entire four-year educational experience might well take on a greater level of meaningfulness (it that's a word).  Certainly, it might take on a deeper context.

One of the challenges of promoting sustainability to students in the USA has always been dealing with the indisputable fact that this nation is objectively the most unsustainable in human history.  Indeed, the evidence is so clear that the only politically acceptable way to deal with the question has been to avoid it altogether.  DeGraaf and Batker have done a commendable job of presenting the key concepts and evidence in terms that are both clear and (politically) rather mild.

The question they ask is critical.  The answer they put forth is phenomenally useful.  Their book is priceless.


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