- - Thursday, October 3, 2019

Ask any young person of my generation what the top issue facing humanity is, and chances are they’ll mention climate change. Just take Greta Thunberg’s word for it. The 16-year-old Swedish climate crusader has inspired followers over the world with her fiery — and perhaps rash — brand of environmentalism, attacking U.N. leaders last week for having “stolen [her] childhood” and beginning a “mass extinction” with their inaction.  

It’s clear with her rhetoric that climate change is now seen as an all-or-nothing battle. That view may scare governments into taking premature measures — measures that may do us more harm than good. Greta’s suggestions for environmental reform often trend toward economic regression, pointing to modern innovation and capitalist growth as major culprits in environmental degradation. But the enormous, intrusive and across-the-board government action Greta is presently demanding might not even prove necessary for environmental accountability in the developed world. 

A recent study found that over half of U.S. businesses have buckled down and upped commitment to renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions — a direct reaction to growing consumer support for green business practices. Compare this learning process with the state of recycling in the United States. A mere 6.8 percent of plastic products in the United States is successfully recycled, and hundreds of cities across the country have suspended their recycling programs due to the expense and inefficiency of the process. Yet, there have been no murmurs from the government about reform. In contrast, as consumers become more supportive of environmental responsibility, they will make green decisions with their pocketbooks — and that will likely be a more sustainable approach to climate change than one rooted in jarring, sweeping policy change. 

Consumer preferences for sustainable practices will undoubtedly continue to shape how businesses operate. Recent examples, found in businesses like Patagonia, Lush and IKEA, indicate that capitalism, despite its environmental flaws, is the system most responsive to social demands, and most conscious of scarcity and reusability. Firms in market economies are incentivized to produce efficiently, reducing depletion of natural resources and maximizing a product’s lifespan. Simply put, producing only necessary stock ensures that only necessary resources are used. Conversely, economist Tomasz Zylicz of Poland determined that during the days of the Iron Curtain, “the non-market economies of Central and Eastern Europe required two to three times more inputs to produce a given output than did Western European economies.” 

But, the environmental benefits of the market economy aren’t just limited to resource usage. As countries become more economically prosperous, and as consumers become wealthier and can afford more environmentally-friendly appliances and vehicles, air pollution falls. Automobiles are one of the major contributors to worldwide carbon levels, and 80 percent to 90 percent of a car’s atmospheric impact stems from its fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Newer (and more expensive) vehicles consume fuel more efficiently and emit lower levels of greenhouse gases — and as people are lifted from poverty through economic development, newer vehicles become attainable. Environmental action can, in fact, go hand-in-hand with economic growth. Irrevocably sacrificing economic progress in the name of environmental progress may very well leave the poorest among us worse off in both realms. 

Perhaps the current climate change predictions will be the ones to hit the mark, succeeding where past ones have failed. Perhaps Greta Thunberg’s messages of resource responsibility and sustainable progress have notes of truth that we would be wise to implement. But ultimately, businesses are predisposed to implement the practices that people find most valuable. If we become enamored with an irreversible 12-year-deadline that young people have embraced and climate scientists have challenged, we run the risk of rushing into an era of stagnating industry and therefore stagnating global sustainability. While Greta’s rebuke of “fairy tales of eternal economic growth” provides an easy scapegoat, the full picture may be more complicated than that. Economic growth is nothing to sniff at. After all, it’s the engine that has lifted 1 billion people worldwide out of extreme poverty since 1990. 

The unrelenting finger-pointing that characterizes environmentalist activism falls short when it comes to tackling the massive tradeoffs we must face on the issue of climate action. A much better approach, then, would look a lot more like compromise and an attempt at understanding. Let’s hope, for the sake of our planet and its people, that our world leaders and those loudly calling for action realize that sooner rather than later.

• Fiona Harrigan is a contributor for Young Voices and a political writer based out of Tucson, Arizona.

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