Sustainability at Carleton

Aaron Swoboda, Carleton College
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The largest problem that confronts us as we try to take steps to make ourselves, our society, our
cities, and our lifestyle more "sustainable" is that no one seems to have a very clear idea of what
"sustainability" really means.

While it is obvious that we can characterize the way we have lived in last century and doubtless
beyond that as "unsustainable" and point, for evidence, to our reliance on nonrenewable sources
of energy, to our acceptance of planned obsolescence, to our love affair with consumer and
household debt, and so on, it is in no way equally obvious what alternative socio-cultural habits
and lifestyles would require in order to be considered "sustainable." Does it consist in replacing
our old lightbulbs with energy-efficient ones, buying only energy-star appliances, relying upon
food grown in our own gardens, biking instead of driving, urban-revitalization plans to eliminate
both the need and desire for suburbs and the commutes that come with them? Or is all this
simply a means of making ourselves feel like we're doing something important, appeasing our
consciences without ever taking meaningful steps toward a more conscientious way of living?

As much, however, as the very definition of sustainability, and the criteria of identity that go
along with it, remains a moving target in the current debate, it is a question for the philosophers
to decide, not economists like myself. For my purposes, there can be no doubt that wherever that
target lands, living more sustainably as a culture will include using less energy per person,
consuming less of the earth's resources per person – in a few words, living smaller than we do
right now.

Economics is about decision-making under scarcity. As such, it is the academic field best positioned
to consider the means of moving ourselves as a society in the right direction here,
even if the ultimate goal remains poorly defined. We know that sustainable living will involve
using less, living smaller; we also know that very little in our present day, beyond the all-too-soft
urgings of our collective conscience impels us in that direction. But as all economists know,
prices matter. Incentives work. My research and my focus right now lies in considering
mechanisms by which we can make the behavior we wish for ourselves make practical, and not
merely moral, sense. We have tried to use moral suasion in order to convince people to drive
less or to use energy efficiently, but it has had a limited effect – these arguments must appeal not
only to people's hearts, but to their wallets as well. We need to get the prices right. If we as
academics and policy makers can keep that in mind as we consider ways to influence people's
behavior on a large scale, we've taken one sure step toward sustainable living, whatever that
turns out to be.