Political Economics of the Environment


Is it possible to provide economic well-being to the world’s population without destroying the natural environment? Is sustainable development a possibility or a utopian dream? How do we determine how much pollution we are willing to live with? Why are toxic waste dumps overwhelmingly located in poor, frequently minority, communities? Whether through activities such as farming, mining, and fishing, or through manufacturing processes that discharge wastes, or through the construction of communities and roadways, human economic activity profoundly affects the environment. The growing and contentious field of environmental economics attempts to analyze the environmental impact of economic activity and to propose policies aimed at balancing economic and environmental concerns. There is considerable debate, with some theorists putting great faith in the market’s ability to achieve good environmental outcomes; others advocate much more direct intervention in defense of the environment; and some question the desirability of economic growth as a goal. Underlying these differences are political economic questions of distribution of power and resources among classes and groups within the United States and across the globe. This course will explore the range of views, with an emphasis on understanding the assumptions underlying their disagreements and on the policy implications of those views. The concepts will be developed through an examination of ongoing policy debates on issues such as air pollution and global warming, the decimation of the world’s fish population, automobiles and the reliance on petrochemicals, and the possibility of sustainable development.