Competition for Creating the Best Possible World

This week we have a guest post from Alex Cuclis – it’s a timely, thought-provoking piece on the marriage of a sound economy with environmental protection. Alex worked for 2 years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa, for 15 years as a refinery engineer for Shell in Deer Park, Texas, and for the past 10 years has been working on a variety of air quality issues for the University of Houston and the Houston Advanced Research Center.

In Romans 12:10 the Apostle Paul wrote, “Love one another with brotherly affection, outdo one another in showing honor.”

This Bible verse makes me wonder: Could we create a society where individuals tried to ‘outdo’ each other in showing kindness?  Could people be encouraged to compete for the best performance to society and to the environment, and be rewarded when they are successful?

I don’t know the answer; however the way the battle over environmental issues is shaping up in Texas, one might expect to see a fight break out in the streets between Eco-Warriors and Economic Hit Men, the agents who work to secure huge profits for large corporations described by John Perkins in Confessions of an Economic Hit-Man.

Or maybe that’s just a dramatic exaggeration.

Still, the age old questions remain:  Can we have a sound economy and protect the environment at the same time?  When is the air we breathe and water we drink “clean enough?”  What regulations need to be in place without destroying the local economy?  Finally, how do we make these determinations in a society that is as diverse as it is in Texas?

There are numerous complicated issues that can’t be answered in a single blog post, and I won’t try.  However the struggles between environmental and economic issues get played out all over the globe.  Sometimes they look similar to what we have in the U.S., but sometimes they are very different.  In the U.S., we have some of the most stringent regulations in the world to protect the environment, but other countries are not so lucky.

Consider the African nation of Nigeria.  They have lots of oil and they have contracted out to various companies to develop it, but the environmental costs have been substantial.  What’s worse is that Nigeria doesn’t seem to have either a good environment or a good economy, because although Nigerians produce a lot of oil, they consume relatively little.  For the past 50 years in the U.S., each person has consumed the equivalent of roughly 50 barrels of oil each year (when all forms of primary energy – oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear and hydroelectric are converted to equivalent barrels of oil).  Compare that to Africa during the same 50 years, where the annual per capita consumption has averaged less than 3 barrels.

Some blame corruption in governments.  Others blame “Economic Hit Men,” or those who extract financial and natural resources from countries without any regard for the social or environmental impact to the host country in order to provide the maximum financial benefit to their clients.

How do we fix these things?  Well, communism didn’t work very well for a number of countries in the last century and some applications of socialism seem to discourage productivity, but unfettered, survival-of-the-fittest capitalism has its problems too.  One suggestion by an early sustainability expert, John Elkington, is to develop a triple bottom line, requiring companies to perform social and environmental audits along with their existing financial audits.

I wonder if we can’t take it one step further.  Could we build a system that uses the best parts of capitalism – competition that encourages peak performance and eliminates inefficiencies – and reward the companies and individuals that “compete” for the best economic, social and environmental performance?  What would the world look like then?

Alex’s 2001 Master’s Thesis at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, Profits and Pollution:  Ethical Dilemmas for Competitive Businesses, describes these issues in greater detail.

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