Taxing ourselves green
November 12, 2007

Doug Krizner: Food, clothes, furniture — in the last few years, the goods we buy travel further and faster than ever before. That chews up a whole lot of energy, and leaves behind a whole lot of pollution. So is the consumer economy itself unsustainable?

Commentator Robert Frank is a Cornel University professor and author of The Economic Naturalist. He says: not so fast.

Robert Frank: It’s no mystery we like eating our favorite foods year-round. The problem is, importing large quantities of food and other goods from around the globe contributes significantly to global warming.

Does that mean our consumer appetites are destined to destroy the planet? Not necessarily.

Take imported food. In recent years, environmental activists have been urging us to eat foods grown closer to home. From now ’til spring, they’ll be eating only root vegetables or summer produce they’ve canned themselves.

But most people won’t make sacrifices like that voluntarily. The problem is the consumer economy provides us no incentive to consider the environmental impact of our decisions. The price of lamb from New Zealand, for example, includes the cost of the fuel used to transport it here, but not the environmental cost the trip imposes on the planet.

Fortunately, we don’t need to transform human nature to do something about global warming. We just need to pull some familiar economic levers to change people’s habits. The simplest solution would be a carbon tax that would force consumers to confront the environmental impact of their purchasing decisions.

Such a tax would raise the price of fuel sharply — stuff from distant places would become much more expensive, and most people would buy much less of it.

I know what you’re thinking: A carbon tax proposal would be dead-on-arrival in Washington. If so, our problem is not that we don’t know how to make the economy sustainable. Rather, it’s that we simply lack the political will.

Krizner: Robert Frank is author of “The Economic Naturalist.”