Earth Day in an IRR world

Sitting here in Wisconsin on Earth Day in 2018 seems a challenge of paradox. Earth Day is the child of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. Wisconsin was once a leader in acknowledging the delicate balance that exists between the environment, people, and the interests of corporations. In recent years this balance has tilted towards a focus on limiting the impact environmental standards have on the profitability of corporations.

Recently, Wisconsin’s governor and legislators gave a Taiwanese company $3 billion in tax credits as an incentive to locate a factory in Southeast Wisconsin. If the company’s profits meet its projections, the state is expected to benefit from this arrangement in the year 2043. As the company’s plans unfold, it seems to be taking advantage of the financial commitment the state has made to roll back environmental standards and displace people from their homes. Presumably, these concessions are necessary if Wisconsin is to recover the $3 billion it has given the company. It’s notable that the company makes screens for electronic devices. The market for these components barely existed 25 years ago. Lowering environmental standards on the assumption that the market for the company’s products will remain for the next 25 years seems to be magical thinking, at best.

When Gaylord Nelson conceived the idea of a day to affirm our stewardship of the environment, I doubt that it was conditional on the profitability of giant corporations, or their wealthy investors. Environmental costs are seen as "negative externalities." Since many people don’t know what an externality is, they often are portrayed as being irrelevant (when they are negative) or as a key selling point (when they are positive) . The fact is, externalities are unaccounted costs or benefits. Anytime someone tries to portray something as only having positive externalities, it’s a good bet that the negative externalities are significant.

An ironic twist to the state government’s march away from environmental standards lies in the voter base in Wisconsin. As is the case in many states, rural voters tend to predominantly support Republican candidates. Republican candidates predominantly support policies that focus on short term corporate gains over long term environmental sustainability. I can’t imagine the Senator would take pride in the direction his state has gone since the celebration of Earth Day began.

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