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Externality-downplaying economics

Summary:
From Duncan Austin A major first response to our sustainability challenges has been to try and turn profit to more sustainable ends. Alas, even ‘purposeful profit’ seems unable to overcome the deeper momentum of what might be termed ‘externality-denying capitalism’ – ‘externality-denying’ in that billions of daily investment and consumption decisions ignore certain of their social and environmental consequences. As just one example, the World Bank reports that less than 4 percent of global carbon emissions are currently priced at levels consistent with the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals, endorsed by 194 nations.[1] Hence, hardly any of today’s market transactions are fully costed, in terms of reflecting their contribution to climate change. The same neglect repeats to varying

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from Duncan Austin

A major first response to our sustainability challenges has been to try and turn profit to more sustainable ends. Alas, even ‘purposeful profit’ seems unable to overcome the deeper momentum of what might be termed ‘externality-denying capitalism’ – ‘externality-denying’ in that billions of daily investment and consumption decisions ignore certain of their social and environmental consequences.

As just one example, the World Bank reports that less than 4 percent of global carbon emissions are currently priced at levels consistent with the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals, endorsed by 194 nations.[1] Hence, hardly any of today’s market transactions are fully costed, in terms of reflecting their contribution to climate change. The same neglect repeats to varying degrees for certain other environmental and social problems.

We don’t call our predominant socio-economic system ‘externality-denying capitalism’, but possibly we should, to constantly remind ourselves of what we are doing.

Figure 1

Externality-downplaying economicsMatt Tweed

Caught in this embracing dynamic, first-response market-led sustainability strategies – such as socially responsible investing (SRI), corporate social responsibility (CSR), and an environmental, social and governance (ESG) movement – are showing signs of exhaustion. While these strategies have helpfully accelerated awareness of sustainability challenges and have catalysed fresh innovation paths and business models, they are being overpowered by the externality-denying capitalism that remains the larger force shaping our social and natural worlds. Hence, there is a pressing need to step out of the day-to-day frame to appraise this bigger system (Figure 1).

In part, we have arrived at externality-denying capitalism – read, consequence-denying capitalism – because it has been rationalized by an externality-downplaying economics discipline (Figure 2). Economics has had a theory of externalities for over a century, but a concept that should have been central to the subject was fatefully marginalized – and not for particularly good reasons.

Figure 2

Externality-downplaying economicsMatt Tweed

There has been a general attitude that external costs might be small, or that positive and negative externalities might roughly cancel out to leave market signals as a still reliable guide for economic decisions. (Unfortunately, there is an important asymmetry: positive externalities are ‘free good things’, of which you can never have too much,  while negative externalities may accumulate to have system-breaking consequences).

Above all, 20th Century economists’ craving for elegant mathematical models, for which externalities were a complication too far, encouraged a view of externalities as the negligible residuals of an all-encompassing efficient market system. However, externalities can no longer be dismissed as negligible market failures when they are becoming the main event! Economics’ – and now society’s – markets-first, world-second perspective is no longer credible – no longer sustainable.

Externality-downplaying economics promotes various ideas – ‘trickle-down’, ‘rising tide lifts all boats’, ‘win-win’, ‘green growth’ etc. – that are all variants of the same basic attitude: whatever the problem, more growth is surely the answer (Figure 3).

But if the measurement of growth is externality-denying, then the growth that is meant to solve problems may simply create more of those problems along the way. Externality-denying growth may rebound or backfire to become not the solution but the driver of various social and environmental harms.

Figure 3

Externality-downplaying economicsMatt Tweed

read more: https://p.feedblitz.com/t3/973841/4534930/0_/www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue102/Austin102.pdf


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