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The Political-Economic Foundations of a Sustainable System

Gar Alperovitz

It is increasingly obvious that the current political and economic system, globally but especially in the United States, is largely incapable of addressing the big sustainability challenges that the world faces today. Many of our economic and ecological problems are global in nature, but the United States faces some unique challenges that make the crisis even more acute. Unlike in Western Europe and Japan, where population is projected to be relatively constant, the U.S. population is set to grow by at least 100 million—and likely 150 million—by 2050. Where and under what conditions these people will live present serious challenges to sustainability planning. U.S. cities today are so spatially and economically unstable that anything beyond superficial sustainability planning is impossible.

Adding to this challenge is America's“throwaway city” habit: as jobs move in and out of cities in uncontrolled ways, the country literally throws away housing, roads, schools, hospitals, and public facilities—only to have to build the same facilities elsewhere at great financial, energy, and carbon costs. All the while, the instability makes it impossible to carry out coherent regional planning. Detroit and Cleveland are dramatic examples; the population of Detroit, a city once home to nearly 2 million, has slumped to barely 700,000, while Cleveland's population has declined from a peak of 915,000 in 1950 to about 390,000 today. Of the 112 largest U.S. cities in 1950 (those with populations over 100,000), 56 had experienced population decline by 2008. The people moved elsewhere, where facilities had to be built anew to serve them and were built under conditions that were inherently prone to future instability and disruption.

Beyond the challenge of throwaway cities is the sprawling of U.S. metropolitan areas, which has direct impacts on carbon emissions per person, a key measure of sustainability. A 2009 report published by the International Institute for Environment and Development showed that cities have significant ecological advantages over suburban areas. New York

Suburban sprawl in Houston, Texas.

City, for example, emitted 7.1 tons of carbon per person per year on average, compared to 23.9 tons per person nationwide in the United States. Likewise, Londoners emitted 6.2 tons of carbon per person annually, compared to a British national average of 11.2 tons. So it ought to be of major concern that a 2010 study of residential construction in the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas found that between 2003 and 2008, suburban areas accounted for the majority of new construction in nearly every metro area (and more than 85 percent of new construction in nearly half of the areas).

Public policy could, in theory, alter these and related trends. But getting serious about sustainability requires focused attention on why public policy support has, at best, been able to slow but not stop ecological deterioration. The roots of this challenge lie in the growing concentration of wealth and income and the consequent self-reinforcing capture of the machinery of politics to serve private ends. The best-laid plans to foster sustainability will fall apart if social and economic pressures cause residents to leave for the sprawling suburbs or perhaps to a fast-growing metropolitan area in another region.

Equally important, there are strong reasons to believe that the politics of sustained “green” mobilization at the local and metropolitan level cannot work unless there is a baseline of economic health, and indeed unless bolstering economic security is a central part of such mobilization; when the economy goes sour, all other priorities fall by the wayside. Even the real urgency attached to the global climate crisis seems less immediate to elected officials and their constituents than the here-and-now pain of unemployment and insecurity when times are tough. But the urgency of the climate crisis itself means that we can no longer afford for environmentalism to go out of fashion when the economy is struggling.

To illustrate the extent of the problem: in the United States, membership in private-sector organized labor has fallen from 35 percent of the labor force in the 1950s to 6.9 percent today (counting the public sector, the share is at 11.9 percent and falling). This fact is central to issues of sustainability, because at the center of the traditional progressive political success has been the ability to contain the corporation, economically and politically, through political mobilization—especially aided, abetted, and bolstered by the organizational and financial power of labor unions. The “main finding” of international research on the relationship of union membership to political outcomes in industrialized countries, the late Seymour Martin Lipset and Noah Meltz observe, is straightforward: “Support for unions is associated with social democratic strength.”

Studies of European social democracy by Emory University sociologist Alexander Hicks also reveal a “[near]-perfect relationship between midcentury [social] program consolidation and working class strength in five major areas of social insurance policy—retirement, work-injury, illness, unemployment, and child-rearing compensation.” Even when labor unions and environmentalists have bickered over specific issues, the power of labor has been critical to the election of progressive political leaders; Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, was a labor lawyer.

Confronting the realities of labor's decline is not easy. But these realities mean that unless some new institutional source of political capacity is developed, advocates of economic justice and sustainability can expect to face continued hard times. Real wages for 80 percent of American workers, for instance, have risen only trivially for at least three decades. At the same time, income for the top 1 percent has jumped from roughly 10 percent of all income to roughly 20 percent. Virtually all the gains of the entire economic system have gone to a tiny, tiny group at the top for at least three decades.

Fifty million Americans live in officially defined poverty, a rate higher than in the late 1960s—another disturbing trend marker. Moreover, if we used the standard common throughout the industrialized world (which considers the poverty level to be half the median income level), the number would be just under 70 million and the rate almost 23 percent. This is to say nothing of an unemployment rate that, if properly measured to include involuntary part-time work and discouraged workers, is stuck in the range of roughly 15 percent.

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