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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.

Inside information #1 - Market intelligence
August 18, 2008 - 4:19pm

Higher education is all about information -- parsing it, passing judgment on it, and passing it on.

Sustainability work is largely about keeping up with information -- with a problem complex enough to encompass the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the socio-sphere, new knowledge emerges daily and anyone's understanding is always incomplete.

If you have to combine the two (as any university sustainability administrator must), a high tolerance for complexity is critical. Unfortunately, this same tolerance for complexity can lead us to over-think and over-explain.

That's why it's always a joy to come upon a simple yet comprehensive discussion of any aspect of the sustainability puzzle. Bill McKibben recently came out with just such a discussion, relating to how market mechanisms can be brought into play to cause economic activity to become more sustainable.

Now, Bill's explanation isn't as simplistic as some devotees of the Chicago School would like ('the Market will decide, the Market will provide, blessed be the name of the Market'), but it's still pretty straightforward. His main point is that the information any market cares most about is conveyed as pricing signals, and economic markets up to the present have been operating in the absence of climatic pricing information. Following this course of thought, the only thing wrong with current market mechanisms is that they haven't had access to enough data.

Of course, the data, which is to say the prices, take form by making greenhouse gas emissions expensive. Since there's been no charge for climatic pollution in the past, some folks (more on this in a later installment) believe there should never be a cost to pollute in the future. They intentionally frame the issue around politically loaded terms like "increased taxes" and "economic burden".

What McKibben's approach does is to reframe the issue in terms of access to information. Taxes might be easy to argue against, but access to information is a lot harder to condemn. It's tough to come out in favor of ignorance -- particularly in an election year.

So, anyways, take a look at the article. It's part of a larger discussion in the May/June issue of Mother Jones. (As always with themed issues, the contributions are of uneven quality. I think McKibben's discussion is one of the better pieces, but you may disagree.)

And, much to my delight, Bill has titled his contribution with a tribute to my institution! For that, I want to thank him personally.


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