I got a call a couple days ago from some lobbyist group trying to convince me that the EPA shouldn't be allowed to regulate greenhouse gases. Their reasoning? You guessed it: doing so would "hurt the economy." My response: "perhaps, but it would help the planet." Clearly, we had little to talk about, so we hung up.
It boggles the mind, this weighing of profit over planet. Taking the long view of things, it's impossible to conclude that those who favor the former over the latter are certifiably insane.
And yet, the thing is, they're not insane. They're behaving, in fact, in perfectly sane, indeed eminently rational ways. According to rational choice theory, most of us, when given an either-or choice, will choose the one that is most rational for our immediate circumstances. If the choice is between having a job today and having a planet 100 years from now, it's rational to choose the former over the latter. And so most people do.
This reminds me of discussions we've had in one of my classes this semester. Why, we've wondered, did northeastern woodlands Native peoples in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries over-hunt and over-trap fur-bearing animals? Couldn't they see that they were depleting the very resources on which they relied? Weren't they--according to the popular stereotype--environmentally conscious enough to want to preserve for the seventh or seven hundredth generation the land's bounty?
Perhaps they were. But they were also enmeshed in a colonial economy wherein just about the only valuable commodity they could sell or trade was furs. Their populations were decimated, their forests were falling, their lands were diminishing, their languages and cultures were threatened--and they still had to feed their families. Given the choice to do so over the choice to preserve hypothetical future beaver and deer, they rationally chose the former.
The same holds true in contemporary Native Nations. Some of my students were troubled, given the prevailing stereotypes, to hear of the presence of extractive, and highly destructive, industries on Indian reservations. How could Indian peoples damage the lands of their ancestors? Well, Indian peoples live, by and large, on the submarginal lands to which they've been relocated; poverty in their communities is endemic; opportunities for education or advancement are practically non-existent; and when the coal company comes knocking, the rational choice is to open the door and let them in.
All of this simply goes to show that to make a truly rational choice, one that empowers communities while at the same time embracing planetary health, we need a third option. And that third option can only come from systemic change; individual communities generally don't have it at their disposal or within their means.
Which is exactly why we need the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. That, in conjunction with programs that help individuals pay the bills and that promote renewable energy and green jobs, would be a step toward that third option.