What Economics Can & Cannot Do for the Environment (& Animals)

I’m excited to welcome Professor Jason Scorse, Ph.D. as a contributor to The Discerning Brute. Jason is an economist, an environmentalist, and advocate of animals and social justice. He is a leading expert concerning why markets fail, and I hope you’ll consider his profound research and his ability to make eye-opening sense of economic complexities.



image source: Pacific Standard Magazine



I chair the International Environmental Policy (IEP) Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and also serve as the Director of our new Center for the Blue Economy. There is a large body of theoretical and empirical work in economics on the topic of how and why markets fail, and in my view, getting markets to work better is the crucial challenge of our time. It’s the solution to most of our environmental challenges, and also holds the key to retuning America to an era of broad-based prosperity and economic security for the middle class. Most of my work revolves around addressing market failure.

In my courses and research I touch on issues as diverse as:

  • • How making information public about firms’ toxic emissions changes their behavior
  • • Whether anti-sweatshop campaigns actually produce better outcomes for workers in developing countries
  • • How FEMA’s disaster insurance program makes matters worse for people and the environment
  • • The importance of valuing ecosystem services (and why environmentalists shouldn’t be afraid to put $ values on nature)

What frustrates me most these days is the fact that one of our major political parties—the GOP—seems to have forgotten that markets are fallible and that they are here to serve the interests of society, not the other way around. The Democrats are far from perfect, but the current Administration and Democratic leaders in Congress have a relatively sophisticated and accurate view of what needs to be done to make our market system better protect the public interest. I’m working with them where I can to update America’s environmental policy for the 21st century.

In terms of how to get markets to work better, the top priority is making corporations accountable for the pollution they emit and the resources they degrade. This can come in many forms—pollution taxes, cap and trade programs, strict emissions controls, fines, and even jail time for offenders. The key is getting the market to accurately reflect the true costs of the products and services we use.

Currently, the most environmentally destructive activities often result in the lowest priced goods and services because businesses are allowed to ignore (or vastly under-price) pollution costs and environmental degradation. To put it bluntly, this is insane. Individuals are held liable for the damages they do to others, but most corporations are allowed to pollute with little to no accountability.

If, for example, we shifted to an economy where people had to pay the true cost for a fast-food hamburger—the full costs of water, energy, land, and pollution—people would be eating a lot healthier and the environment would be a lot less polluted; in addition, many fewer animals would be killed each year in our inhumane factory farms.

Our economic system is currently rigged in favor of the polluters, and can more accurately be described as crony capitalism rather than a truly well-functioning market. Creating a healthy and productive economic system requires taking on these entrenched interests and getting them to pay their fair share. The logic should be amenable to conservatives because it’s nothing more than personal responsibility taken from the individual level to the corporate level. If corporations are really just like people (as says the Supreme Court and GOP candidate Romney) then they should be held to at least as high a standard for dumping toxic pollutants into the water and air as I would be if I did it myself.

image source: Mother Earth News

While getting markets to work more effectively would go a long way towards solving many of our environmental problems (and also lead to significant improvement in the welfare of the billions of animals that we share the planet with), economics can only get us so far. There is very little that economic efficiency can teach us about how to be more compassionate towards animals, and to value their unique forms of intelligence and beauty for their own sake.

That would require a much more profound shift in consciousness, which is why I also spend a considerable amount of time thinking and writing about environmental ethics. So here’s something I’ll leave you with to ponder:

It is easy to look back in time and feel morally superior to those who once practiced slavery, denied women the right to vote, or treated blacks as second-class citizens. The truly moral person doesn’t take solace in this easy exercise, but instead asks themselves—What actions of ours today will leave future generations shaking their head at our moral blindness?

Hint: Our treatment of animals.

P.S. If you’re interested more in a general discussion on how economics can help protect the environment, here are talks I gave on my book What Environmentalists Need to Know About Economics: Short version/Long Version.

Jason Scorse completed his Ph.D. in Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics at UC-Berkley in 2005 and subsequently joined the faculty of the Monterey Institute. He teaches courses in environmental and natural resource economics, ocean and coastal economics, and sustainable development. In 2009 he was promoted to the Chair of the International Environmental Policy Program, and as of 2011 is also the Director of the new Center for the Blue Economy. Professor Scorse has consulted for major environmental organizations, and in 2010 his book, “What Environmentalists Need to Know About Economics,” was published by Palgrave Macmillan. Dr. Scorse is also the Chair of The Otter Project board and sits on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Research Activities Panel. Scorse has been vegan since 1994.



True Cost, WeWood & Chambrey

• The organic cotton chambrey shirts from Knowledge Apparel with button-down collars are incredibly handsome and fitted. A+ all the way.

Thought Control in Economics

• What is ecological truth? What is the true cost – not just abstract numbers, but the actual ecological impact – of running your fridge, buying a toy from overseas, or eating animal products from CAFOs ? Furthermore, what would happen to our economic systems if we implemented what Kalle Lasn calls “true cost” in his article A New Kind of Global Marketplace“?

Processed, mega-farmed and imported foods become more expensive as the cost of organic and locally produced food goes down. Bit by bit, purchase by purchase, the global food system heaves toward sustainability.”

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• When the first clocks were erected in the town squares of France, the workers revolted and destroyed them for fear of having their lives controlled, minute by minute. Nowadays it’s nearly impossible to escape the tick, tick, tick of clock. Short of escaping our dependency on man-made-time (as opposed to following the patters of the sun and moon), the Italian eco-lux company, WeWood, offers reclaimed and sustainably harvested wood watches. The website claims that every watch is “completely absent of artificial and toxic materials,” and furthermore, each purchase of a watch results in a tree being planted! (via Ecouterre)

Killer Bacon Bugs, Bid on Stars & Recycling Myths

1. An Op-Ed published by the New York Times last week has linked killer MRSA, also known as the  antibiotic-resistant “Flesh Eating Bacteria” to more than 18,000 deaths per year in the US. That’s more than AIDS. And what is the source of this superbug? You guessed it: cheap pig products. “Probably from the routine use — make that the insane overuse — of antibiotics in livestock feed. This is a system that may help breed virulent “superbugs” that pose a public health threat to us all.


A small Dutch study found pig farmers there were 760 times more likely than the general population to carry MRSA (without necessarily showing symptoms), and Scientific American reports that this strain of MRSA has turned up in 12 percent of Dutch retail pork samples.

Now this same strain of MRSA has also been found in the United States. A new study by Tara Smith, a University of Iowa epidemiologist, found that 45 percent of pig farmers she sampled carried MRSA, as did 49 percent of the hogs tested.

Death on a Factory Farm

And now with the NYT review of the Documentary “Death on Factory Farm” which is taking HBO viewers by

storm, I can only wonder how these animals that are smarter than dogs (yet some dogs chew delightfully on their dried ears & limbs) will fare int he coming months? And au contraire Mike Hale and the Wiles’s community, we can all eat veggies and thrive.

2. Bid on me! Help Farm Sanctuary raise some funds, and get a private brunch for two prepared by yours truly! Also bid on items from Bill Mahr, Amy Smart, Joan Jett, Chloe Jo, Daniela Sea, Heather Mills, Matt & Nat, Wendy Kidd, Dan Piraro, Gloria Steinem, Joelle Katcher, Rachael Sage, 30 Seconds to Mars, Maureen Burke, Gabrielle Brick, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, Nigel Barker, and more!

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3. Is recycling really all that it claims to be? Have you ever been confronted by someone who is a total recycling skeptic and didn’t know what to say?

Read: “Recycling Is Too Difficult and 9 Other Obnoxious Myths

Read the Economist article: “The Truth About Recycling

Read: The Economics of Recycling

Watch: William McDonough on ‘Cradle to Cradle’

Recycling is a tricky issue because it’s really a problem of over-production and over-consumption. But one thing is certain. We do not have infinite resources on this planet, and people who are in the industries that use up these resources, and are in positions to do something about it have a responsibility to figure out how to not leave devastated ecosystems for future generations. Just because the recycling systems aren’t perfect does not justify throwing caution to the wind and continuing ‘business as usual’.

The real issue is that recycling is not enough. Reuse is better, and ‘green’ products with toxic by-products need to be more thoroughly sourced, because there are products that come from closed loop systems, also known as EIN Eco Industrial Networking or EIP- Environmental Industrial Parks. But again, the root problem is still there.

Bottler of an idea ... Crushed drink bottles at a recycling plant in Chullora

One major problem is that recycling systems are often based on dollars as opposed to ecological and personal well-being. Dollars are abstract and when you work towards achieving such an abstraction (as opposed to working towards sustainability, good health, community, friendship, etc) the consequences to the physical world become secondary, when in fact ecosystems are primary and without functioning, healthy ones, we’d all be gone. The reason recycling appears to be useless to some people is not because re-rendering products into new products is impossible – it’s because they are seeing the effects of basing a recycling system upon a system that in itself is not sustainable.

Does that mean we shouldn’t recycle? Of course not! It means we should do that, and much much more! It also means the problems haven’t been solved and we need to get some serious critical thinking done.