One Cheer for the Sequester

How the Sequester Could Spark a New Approach to Work and Consumption
The U.S. federal budget sequester may be moving us toward a more sustainable society, at least in one limited aspect. Many government employees will be losing up to 20% of their work time along with a chunk of their salaries. A sustainable society will consume less, and these employees will be doing so.

As the world’s leading consumer nation, the U.S. especially needs to cut down on consumption, and 10% is an excellent start. It’s even better that the 20% that will be taken from consumption-heavy activities, such as air travel, and, with government workers on tight budgets, such activities will likely be the first to go. Furthermore, giving government employees one day off each week moves toward another goal held by many sustainability proponents: a society with shorter work weeks and more leisure time, albeit leisure time used in low- or no-consumption activities, such as reading and talking.

Should we, then, endorse the sequester? The issue is more complicated. For one thing, numerous jobs will simply be eliminated, since many government contractors will deal with the cutbacks by laying workers off. This might reinforce the environmental dimension of sustainability, as the environmental footprint of these workers—and their families—will plummet.

Yet, for the equity dimension, such a move is a disaster, as it means more families suffering, fewer opportunities for children of the jobless, and probably more hunger. The sequester also will reduce our already insufficient safety net, meaning such programs as food stamps and Head Start, which gives poor children an educational jump start. Society will become more unequal, with shriveling claims to meritocracy, shrinking long-term opportunities for those with less. The sequester may lead to a humanitarian disaster. Such a conundrum points to what seems a contradiction between the equity and environmental sides of sustainability; a poorer, more unfair society seems less capable of the excessive consumption that is most harming our planet.

Poverty and the Planet

In the long run, however, it’s debatable whether poverty helps the environment. The development of a strong middle class may spur environmental awareness that helps protect the planet, as happened in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s. By contrast, a poor society may develop recklessly, without regard for environmental standards, as we have seen happening in China. Thus the (hotly contested) idea of an environmental Kuznets curve, in which a developing society increases its pollution, while an affluent society decreases it. Unfortunately, this may be true only within the borders of the country or region being polluted.

Thus, the U.S., it can be argued, cleaned up its own air and water and reforested its landscape, but continued its massive consumption while outsourcing its pollution as manufacturing moved to poorer countries with fewer environmental protections. If this is true, and if the anti-Keynesian policies we have seen in much of Europe and, increasingly, in the U.S., really do shrink the middle class, then austerity measures are a boon for the environment. Of course, this assumes that analysts such as Paul Krugman are right, and government spending stimulates the economy. If conservative ideas that government impedes the marketplace are correct, then the opposite is true. Empirical evidence, however, is leaning toward the Krugman side, as China’s highly government-oriented economy continues to grow, while European austerity, for instance in Greece and the UK, has correlated with greater economic pain. Perhaps sustainability advocates should be lobbying for even more massive government cuts to plunge the planet into a new Great Depression and really help the environment?

First, however, we need to examine again the idea that economic pain causes environmental recklessness. Rather than moving toward a society of making do with less, a worldwide depression would likely mean ever-shrinking care for the environment, for instances leading to irresponsible harvesting of forests. This could also mean more exploitation of dirty fossil fuels, such as coal, and more drilling in environmentally sensitive areas without safeguards. Yet it is also likely that rising demand from the middle class stimulates imprudent industrialization to feed its growing needs. A strong middle class, it seems, is necessary to safeguard the environment, yet a strong middle class also takes consumption to unsustainable levels.

Call for a New Middle Class

What’s needed, as I have argued before—following the thinking of Juliet Schor and others—is a new kind of middle class that gives credence to values other than consumption. It is at least conceivable that government workers with reduced hours, and incomes, could become a vanguard of such a change. So one cheer for the sequester—but one out of three ain’t good.

The sequester is also likely to cause even more inequality and suffering than the U.S. already endures, and to slow down important research, for instance in clean technology and other environmental matters. And, judging by the words of Republican leaders, the sequester will be in effect for a long time and may be permanent. More likely, after some months of squabbling, the most extreme effects of the sequester will be pruned back. It would be nice, although surprising, if one long-term impact is for people to realize that they can get by with less work, less income, and less consumption. However, this paring is best if managed in an equitable, prudent way. At present, it might be happening as an unintended consequence of austerity measures, but this is not the best way to manage change.

This post first appeared in Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy and was reprinted here with permission.