A Transcript of the Interview with Steve Szeghi, Professor of Economics, Wilmington College, for the WPF “Dialogue of Civilizations”
My name is Steve Szeghi, I am professor of economics at Wilmington College in Wilmington, Ohio. My key interests are ecological economics and the economies of indigenous peoples and also the whole issue of social justice and equality between people. Those are my subfields within economics that I like to write about, speak about whenever I get the opportunity. In addition I teach all the standard economics courses at my school, micro/macro theory, history of economic thought, comparative economics systems, money and banking, the whole slew of courses. It is a very small teaching college, Liberal Arts College.
The greatest global threat, I guess I’ve been thinking about that during my time here at this conference so far. Sometimes lately I just feel very very sad, because I’m afraid that people can get used to the idea of a world without wilderness, a world without wildlife. I am afraid that people can adapt to that idea. It is going to be much to agree peril and suffering, because I think without wilderness, without wildlife we have a kind of tripping point here in terms of preserving critical habitat, in terms of protecting wildlife corridors and also in terms of doing something about climate change. It is like we are running out of time. If do not do something geopolitically on a global level to restructure our institutions that govern international trade and also laws and regulations to protect the species, then I think we are headed for a world without wilderness, without wildlife. It is going to be really sad, because that’s not the type of a world I want to pass on to my grandchildren. I have two recent grandsons, one is 6 months old and one is about 5 months old. I’d like them to see grizzly bears when they are my age. I’d like them to have that experience to pass on to their children. I’d like them to see wolves and abundance of the different species of whales, and tigers, and lions, and elephants.
There is just so many threats to wildlife and I am afraid sometimes that people are so mesmerized by consumerism. At the first session Dr. Yakunin brought up the quote from J.C. Kapur about how global economies just become this unlimited consumerism protected by military might. It’s like this unlimited consumerism is like the opium of masses, like dulls people to reality. I am afraid with all that consumerism people could potentially get used to a world without wilderness and wildlife, but like I said there would be to our peril as human beings, because I think we need wilderness, we need wildlife to really stay in touch with who we truly are as human beings. On top of that is just profoundly wrong. It’s profoundly immoral and unethical for one’s species to squeeze out so much of the rest of nature.
How can individuals make it different when there is no global structures dealing with these issues? It is actually limited to what individuals can do, but what individuals can do, by example, is to create the pressures that are needed for nations and eventually the globe to change. That is how I see the voluntary actions of individuals. By themselves they are not enough, but what they can do is to ultimately build a wave of support for the type of changes we need to make at the political and collective level. In the meantime, it is not as though they do not do any good. I think one thing the individuals could potentially do, that could have a dramatic effect particularly on the whole climate change front. We are talking about westerners and Western Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia, if we are talking about meat-eaters, for example, and I’m not an expert with the physical sciences, but my colleagues do tell me that roughly about half of the ecological footprints of the meat-eaters is from eating meat. So changing to a vegetarian diet or to a diet of just some reduced meat consumption is something that any individual could do just like that. So much of what else you have to do to reduce your ecological footprint depends on either having financial investment or you put solar panels on your house, or alternatively you stop driving your car so much and take public transport, but that demands that there is public transport to be taken and that involves a collective decision again. So one thing that every individual could do right away to reduce substantially their ecological footprint is to reduce meat consumption, because if the whole globe adopts western-style of meat diet, we are basically dooming wilderness and wildlife and probably we are ultimately dooming our own species as well. That is a half of the ecological footprint. Then you also have to deal with public transport. So we need to find ways to tap creativity and dynamism of individuals in terms of actions maybe they are taking as examples to others, but the ultimate goal is to build support for collective decisions and structural change on both national and global level.
I do believe that we should do a lot more to limit the power of corporations by law and by regulations. One of the ways we do that is by restructuring the rules of the game when it comes to international trade. The global prices, the things sell for does not incorporate and those prices they are full cost, it doesn’t incorporate the cost to communities of factories shutting down and moving to other places, it doesn’t incorporate the full cost to the environment, it doesn’t incorporate the cost to worker’s health, of poor working conditions or substandard wages. So international prices have to be redone in a way that builds into them what we in economics call negative externalities. If there is an additional cost to that goods production that their company is not paying for, be it the workers’ health, car environmental cost, cost to communities, they have to be taxed appropriately to cover those costs. What I’m telling you here is just standard economics, this is not any wild crazy theory that hasn’t been thoroughly vetted in the economics textbooks. It is like standard theory externalities, markets do not work. We would actually be making the market work better if we make corporations pay the full cost of what they are producing. We got a start with that, beyond that there are issues involving the ability of corporations to impact the whole entire political process in the United States, but also internationally as well. When it comes to the corporate power, we have countries all over the globe in a race to the bottom and governments are competing against other governments seeing who can cut the taxes on corporations more, who can cut regulations and laws on corporations more. The countries that are the most lax, this is where these corporations are moving to. We need international agreements between governments to stop this ridiculous race to the bottom that we are not going to compete with one another on that level. I mean this is a very destructive race to the bottom where countries do not have therefore the revenue to fund social safety nets, they do not have the revenue to protect the environment, they do not have the revenue for merit goods such as education for people. It just has to stop. We’ve had several decades of this race to the bottom now and I can’t see it doing any good, but on the one hand it might be wishful thinking saying we can do this, but I think people in governments across the globe recognize that this course that the entire planet is on is very dangerous. It is absolutely necessary to reign in corporate power in the United States, but also throughout the world.
This is the thing. If I believe that if the way we raise living standards in the third world is not to allow corporations to go to the third world to harvest labor and resources cheaply without the full cost being considered and once corporations do that, when they go and do that, go to another country and exploit workers and exploit nature, if they are bound by international agreements that they going to pay those extra costs in the price, what then happens is you are going to like raise these living standards in the third world, because when they go there, it is like, well we are going to have to pay for it one way or the other, either we are going to have to pay this tax to some sort of global entity, it would have to be some sort of global institution newly-created or alternatively we can just pay the workers better or we can be more environmentally proper and ecologically conscious. What we do that way we do not pay the tax, so we are going to wind up paying the full cost anyway. What that would in essence do is not give a competitive advantage to the exploiters of labor or the exploiters of the environment.