Help the economy and the environment

California is already seeing a “solar boom”

Listening to a commentary on Marketplace yesterday evening, I was reminded of the conflict between consumerism and — let’s call it — “environmental restraint”. The basic premise of a stimulus package is to give consumers more cash to spend: consumers buy stuff; demand for stuff increases; jobs are created to make more stuff; more people have more jobs, earning more money and want to buy yet more stuff.

While more “stuff” may be good for the economy, it’s rarely a positive thing for the environment. Stuff takes energy to produce, energy to transport, and energy to discard at the end of its useful lifetime.

And so with the natural wariness of someone that doesn’t want to see the country dive into recession, I pondered the tension between economic stimulus and sound ecological responsibility.

Turns out I’m not the only one. In this week’s Businessweek magazine, Pallavi Gogoi explores some similar themes. The article notes a growing awareness of the environmental effects of consumerism. Gogoi concludes:

The growing environmental awareness, and tougher economic times, could even influence the effectiveness of economic stimulus plans now being weighed by the Bush Administration and Congress. The kind of free spending the government hopes consumers will revert to might be difficult in this new mood.

But economic stimulus need not be bad for the environment. And, as the Sierra Club’s Josh Dorner writes for Grist this week, some legislators are doing their best to give the environment some stimulus along with the economy. A range of credits and investment bonds has been approved for inclusion in the Senate stimulus package. Now it’s down to the voting…

It can be possible to consume and be environmentally responsible (Smart Strip, anybody?), but it’s not always easy. So a question for our readers: how do you do your consumer’s duty to your country and your economy while also being a good environmentalist?

Photo available under Creative Commons license from Flickr user remintola.

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  1. Les Brinsfield - February 6, 2008

    a smart strip with a timer would be a winner.
    like turning a refrigerator off for 2 hours twinxt 1am and 5am

  2. Diane - February 6, 2008

    Maybe a good thing would be to not buy more stuff, but to spend the “windfall” purchasing things one would anyway, but spending the extra dollars to buy organic and local. A lot of American-made organic clothing is available, but it does usually cost quite a bit more than pesticide-intensive non-organic and foreign-made attire.
    While some might argue that one isn’t getting as much for one’s money, I would say that the stimulus goes further if we keep it at home than if we send it abroad. And we get the benefit of a cleaner environment (less pesticide and less transport CO2) as well.

  3. Eric N. - February 6, 2008

    Sounds like a no-excuses opportunity to finally make some green improvements around the house. CFLs, new weather stripping on doors and windows, a tune up for the car… there is no shortage of ways to spend money AND help the environment at the same time.

  4. Robert Beck - February 6, 2008

    We have choices as consumers in this country to make in the market place. Spending is part of economics and it is now more important than ever to spend our dollars carefully by supporting the market responsibly. We (the consumers) are the key component of capitalism and therefore the ones responsible for how the market place plays out. It’s time to become better consumers by being aware of the choices we make from which companies we invest in to who we buy our eggs from. Think about it USA.
    If we choose to support responsible business in the market place then our choices will drive the market in a responsible direction. The tough one here is that we are used to cheap products and breaking this mold will break the bank for those of us without disposable income. In order for the eco smart business to thrive they will have to come to the market and we as consumers have to buck up and spend a little more before the price breaks and stabilizes as the norm.

  5. Anonymous - February 6, 2008

    How about taking some of those billions of dollars and putting them toward public works projects to build modern public transit in key American cities?

  6. Jim - February 6, 2008

    The stimulus package, or what I like to call the “one more drink before we fall off the barstool bill”, will have the exact same environmental effect as the previous 100 trillion dollars our citizens have spent on un-eco-friendly stuff.
    Are we buying green today? That will tell us how we will by tomorrow and the near future, which is when the stimilus package will land in our pockets.
    If $600 a head is enough to make a difference then we are in worse shape than we thought. Compare the 150,000,000,000 stimilus package to the 730,000,000,000 Pentagon/war budget this year.

  7. Jim - February 6, 2008

    How about an economic incentive stimulus package to buy eco-friendly goods and services?
    I know…but I can dream can’t I?

  8. Patricia - February 6, 2008

    Has anyone heard about the steady-state economy? We don’t have to fall into the trap of being consumers with ever increasing appetites for ‘stuff’. That is a kind of economic slavery. Who says our economy always has to grow-grow-grow in order to be healthy? That is hogwash. Perhaps economic theory needs to find a whole different basis to operate on; a basis of being for people, not for profit only.

  9. Bernie Schatz - February 6, 2008

    There is agreement on my part that we need to start only using todays organic matter and stop relying on yesteryears organic matter which took tens of billions of years to form and we use it up in a couple of life times. We also have to stop thinking that a growing economy needs a growing population. We are over crowed now. The world needs to take steps like China – one child per family. Anne Ehrlich’s quote says it best – “So…whatever your cause, it is a lost cause without population control.”

  10. Chad - February 6, 2008

    The “economic stimulus” plan is bogus voodoo, folks. Where do you think this $600 is going to come from? From the magic money tree?
    Of course not. We are going to borrow it from someone. And whomever we borrow it from (ahem…the Chinese, oil-rich Russians and Middle-Easterns, etc) will therefore NOT be spending it. There is very little net effect to either the environment or the economy. The only real effect is that our children will have to pay this loan back with interest – on top of all the other ones we have already saddled them with.
    This “stimulus” plan is pure vote pandering for the upcoming elections, at the expense of the long-term health of our nation. I would argue that any politician that supports such policies should be rejected outright, but that would leave some pretty slim pickin’s.

  11. Charronne - February 6, 2008

    Our own personal commitment to going greener includes the obvious, like buying locally produced groceries and products whenever possible, but also in buying other stuff used. Before rushing out to a store for a new bookshelf, cabinet, tools, lawn furniture, or even some clothing, first stop is second hand and thrift shops or garage sales. Yesterday, found a brand new item of clothing, still with originals tags, for $2.00, original price would have been closer to $100. The money stays in the local economy, and the only energy used is the gas to get there. Items can easily be refurbished or painted ( with eco friendly paint, of course). Good for the local economy,good for the wallet: by buying second hand where possible we save more than enough to offset the extra expense on local and organic produce and clothing.

  12. Anonymous - February 6, 2008

    We are a country with trillions of dollars in consumer debt due to our “I want it now” mentality. We buy on credit instead of saving our pennies because we can’t wait three months for that flat screen tv!
    Is it really unpatriotic to put that money toward paying off consumer debt or into savings accounts?
    Less consumer debt equals more money free on a monthtly basis for most people. Financial security in emergency savings accounts creates stability in American households which are the building blocks of our economy.
    We need to stop thinking short term here… going out and spending that money on unneeded stuff may help the economy on the short term, but in the long run we are still so far in debt we are drowning.
    Some people may call it unpatriotic and it may not do much to save the planet, but if my family recieves any money from this hair brained government plan it is going straight into our savings.

  13. Mary Florence - February 6, 2008

    Write a letter to the editor of your local paper with the suggestions posted here. If we have to adopt this stimulus package, explain, explain, explain to consumers that it isn’t a great help to the economy if they spend it on imported products. We need to invest/spend in the US and local economies. How about using the money to invest in local alternative energy projects?
    I’d love to see more discussion about a steady-state economy. I’ve often wondered about the viability of such an economy but never seen anyone discuss it. Why does the economy have to grow? Can’t the economy be healthy if it is dynamic (rather than stagnant) at a steady and sustainable level? Are there examples of successful steady-state economies in other countries?

  14. Jim - February 6, 2008

    As Chad pointed out (No. 10), we are simply being bribed by our own money with the lame “stimilus package” deal. Here’s how it plays out:
    1. Our government let’s the big banks do questionable dealing under a basically unregulated lending industry.
    2. Finally, the bubble bursts and Wall Street screems “help” and uses the “poor home owner” as their poster child.
    3. The same D.C. folks try and jump start the economy until November by giving us all one more shot of whisky before we fall off the barstool.
    4. The stimulus package “works” until mid-November, just long enough for the republicans to maintain control.
    5. The fallout: We owe China another 150,000,000,000 and we STILL have a shitty healthcare system, school system, and wake to another bad-hair day once the votes are counted.

  15. AG - February 6, 2008

    Um, Jim, Democrats are in control in DC…

  16. Hannahlee - February 6, 2008

    I have to agree with Patricia (8) on this one. Right now our economy is growing, it’s just not with the speed that some would like to see. In no way are we slipping down some slippery slope. We are a country of spenders and, if you ask me, it’s sick. We have the most consumer-driven economy of any other country, but that doesn’t mean we’re the only ones who have a stable economy. Maybe we need to look at the way things are done and look at ways to change them.
    I also think that the best thing we can do for our economy is to watch where we spend. There aren’t enough jobs here because we’ve outsourced too much. The more we spend on American-made products, the more good we are doing for the American people.

  17. Jackie - February 6, 2008

    I hate to burst the bubble of “buying American” . . . but most manufactured goods are made piecemeal all over the world. Even beginning to sort that out – yikes!
    Buying local is another matter: it is most often face to face (which has the additional benefit of building community) and the products, food or otherwise are most often high quality: organic, hand made, designed specifically for the individual consumer, sustainable and or recycled.
    It doesn’t do much good to blame the Congress, or even the corporations. We need to 1) practice what we preach, 2) Vote our consciences, vote with our dollars, vote with our feet, and 3) talk to everyone we know, in a friendly way, about our own principles and practices. That, the environment, and the economy will continue to draw more people to a sustainable lifestyle.

  18. Dana Freeman - February 7, 2008

    I am I violinist, and I like to spend on services, such as concerts, and music lessons, and massages after a busy work week. Isn’t spending on local sevices good for the economy? I also love goods that last. My instuments were made in 1765 and 1784. I realise most goods are not so durable, but let’s go for lasting quality.

  19. Topher - February 7, 2008

    I second Dana’s idea: if you must spend spend spend, go for services instead of stuff.
    During the holidays, I wanted to connect with my family by getting them gifts, but I felt frustrated that our gift giving culture is so excessively wasteful. I hate the idea of buying stuff for others that might end up unused or in the trash. My solution: a combination of experiential gifts (ie meals, classes, performances)as well as charitable donations. Giving to an organization that does valuable work also feeds the (beastly) economy; I just trust they do more good with it than, say, me getting my brother a random sweater.

  20. Jim - February 7, 2008

    AG (No. 15)
    “Um, Jim, Democrats are in control of D.C..”
    Really? Last time I looked Gorge was still throwing his weight around that town with relative ease.
    The Bush-approved version of the stimilus package is one of the more obvious attempts for the Republicans to make themselves appear as if they saved us from the angry volcano just long enough for a McCain win in November.
    ‘Coures…I could be wrong.

  21. RAS - February 8, 2008

    I have a great idea on the tax credit/return that every one hopes to get.
    1. If you are a LIBRAL send it back with a letter stating that you want to give this money to the Federal government to pay the national debt.
    2. If you are a CONSERVATIVE, put it in to a savings/CD acount and when you retire buy something nice for your self.
    There is nothing that says you have to cash the check it will expire after 180 days anyway.

  22. Aaron A. - February 8, 2008

    1. If you are a LIBRAL [sic]send [your rebate] back with a letter stating that you want to give this money to the Federal government to pay the national debt.
    That assumes that we (a) appreciate being politically generalized in this manner, and (b) trust the Feds enough to respect our wishes. Personally, I prefer to donate mine to a charitable organization who will likely get shafted next year because of the tax cuts.
    — A.
    My political
    views cannot be summarized
    in a single word.
    (Hey, I made a haiku!)

  23. Peguga - February 8, 2008

    A Reflection on the environment

  24. Jim - February 10, 2008

    All that you say is correct and hopefully becoming more and more obvious to each of us. Thank you for saying it again here.
    This particular thread discusses the stimilus package and what it means to the environment. Unfortunately, it seems the only thing Congress can agree on these days is giving the American people one more drink before we fall off the barstool.
    The $163,000,000,000 stimilus package will have the same exact net effect on our environment as the preceeding $163,000,000,000 did and that the following $163,000,000,000 will: not good.
    Why aren’t we demanding that the $163,000,000,000 be spent on developing solar and wind power? Or be invested in tax incentives for folks who buy green products like solar panels for their house or high-effeciency automobiles? How about subsidies to these promising and revenue-generating industries? Well, with a backward-thinking mentality all progressive and sensible ideas will simply fall flat.
    I look forward to this time next year when there will at least be a fighting chance that some sensible energy policies will be put into law.
    Until then the current administration, leading a impotent Congress, will continue doing the exact wrong thing at the exact right time.
    BTW: Please register and vote. And listen carefully to the plans of each of the candidates regarding our energy policy.
    Thanks for the soapbox my friends…
    Jim in Arizona

  25. Larry - February 27, 2008

    I agree!…with most of you. Except I don’t think we can depend on our government to do much of anything towards all the above, anytime soon. I think it’s in our hands. If you agree, check out the following website:
    I’d be happy to hear what you think.

  26. David - September 19, 2008

    Quote from Fight Club (novel)
    “You buy furniture, you tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. buy the sofa, then for a couple of years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled, then the right set of dishes, then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug.
    Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things that you used to own, now they own you.”
    The movie (Fight Club) also mentions the last lines of this quote which involves a interesting conversation.