From a capitalist perspective, caring about the environment makes sense

Oct. 24, 2020

Several days ago a pilot whale died in Thailand. The story might not have even been worth a mention in the evening news except for the fact that almost 20 pounds of plastic trash was found in the whale’s stomach. The subsequent response was predictable. Environmentalists anxiously reiterated the deplorable state of our oceans while industries that rely on the overproduction of plastic for their bottom line were silent.

Its not just about a whale. This response is emblematic of the environmental movement in the U.S. in general: On one side are the environmentalists and on the other, are the capitalists, singularly motivated by money.

But this is a false dichotomy—and cultivating the split is, in fact, bad for the environmental movement. In fact, caring about, protecting and rehabilitating the environment is extremely good for business. The name ‘environmental activist’ no longer needs to be associated only with a narrow slice of society; the term signifies huge markets, new investment opportunities and jobs. The business community should recognize and claim their association with it.

Environmental stewardship helps business in two ways: by developing new markets and economies, and by creating new jobs.

Ecosystem markets, which connect people who maintain and restore ecological habitats with people willing to pay for conservation activities, are an emerging economy dependent on healthy environments. These markets essentially monetize the many public benefits of a healthy environment--clean air and water, fertile farm land and healthy recreation areas, reduced carbon emissions, and flood control. If you put a value on these free public services, they add up to around $10000/hectare/year for free, according to one study. This value has driven new ecosystem markets for things like trading and offsets (credits for conservation activities that can be bought and sold), environmental water markets (the purchase or lease of water that is not used by the buyer), public subsidies (agriculture or landowner payments linked to conservation instead of production), and direct funds for restoration of damaged habitat through bilateral agreements or collective action funds.

Ecosystem markets not only produce value, but also support jobs. For example, the $25 billion restoration economy supports more jobs than iron and steel mills, coal mining and logging put together, while producing  a thirty percent return on investment.  Unsurprisingly, ecosystem markets are not only popular in the U.S. where they have grown a staggering 2000% in the last twenty years, but in other countries as well, such as Mexico, China and the European Union.

Investors and business people should also be excited about the burgeoning renewable energy industry. Even in the absence of the multi-billion dollar subsidies the US government provides to conventional energy platforms, renewable energy has been growing steadily since 1989. The renewable energy economy, including solar, wind and  water, supports approximately the same number of jobs as oil and gas extraction. Solar energy alone provides more than triple the number of jobs that coal production does.

Some pro-business lobbyists argue that environmental markets hurt other market sectors or local communities. However this is rarely true. Coal jobs aren’t disappearing due to renewable energy companies; they’re being lost mostly to automation. Local landowners can also benefit from renewable energy development by, for example, receiving lease or royalty payments for turbine installations on private land. Communities surrounding renewable energy sources are also free from public health threats posed by coal plant emissions,  estimated by Harvard University to cost taxpayers $74.6 billion every year.

Ecological systems from tropical forests to temperate grasslands, from mountaintops to the deep sea are in peril: healthy habitat is shrinking; plants and animals are going extinct; the air we breathe and the water we drink is becoming tainted by pollution. The direct monetary benefits of proactive environmental protection, maintenance, and rehabilitation are clear, and the indirect benefits are enormous. Instead of artificially separating ourselves into arguing factions—earthy-crunchy liberals vs. hard-hearted capitalists, let’s acknowledge that the environment can offer different things to different people. The business community, although not traditionally associated with the environmental movement, has much to gain from a health environment: Recognizing and popularizing this idea can benefit everyone.