Market Based Economies and Sustainability

Chris McIntosh, Economics, University of Minnesota-Duluth

Sustainability must be taught in an interdisciplinary context due to the three major perspectives it encompasses: environmental, financial, and social. I like to take a broad approach to sustainability; what are the major threats to the sustainability of a market based economy? I work through a list of problems that can disrupt a market from its economically ideal outcome and apply it to the sustainability of health, education, food, environment, etc. Notice these topics are relevant to the quality, availability, or cost of resources firms use in making products and the demand for those products. Sustainability is naturally interwoven in the economic efficiency goal of doing the best with what we have since it can influence current and future benefits and costs.

One of the great advantages of teaching environmental sustainability topics in an economic context is that there are often very simple active learning games that get at the incentives of many problems. Please see my activity submission for one such example. Two great resources for several games/activities were developed by a colleague at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Professor Curt Anderson has worked with the National Council for Economic Education for many years and published Economics and the Environment and Seas, Trees and Economies (full cites below) which detail many exercises that can be used over a broad range of levels; elementary school students through undergraduates.

There are many possibilities for enhancing the integration of geoscience and sustainability in an economic context. Much of it depends on data reliability, accessibility, and interpretation. Many sources that provide interpretations of data may be considered biased. It would greatly assist sustainability teaching to have data and government/academic studies on the most pressing issues readily available. While the importance of specific issues may be debatable, I continue by outlining interdisciplinary topics which I have a personal desire to learn more about and integrate into my classes.
  • Energy resources
  • Updated information on the stocks and flows of the primary US energy sources (coal, oil, and gas) available in the US and worldwide
  • Pollution, accidents, and deaths from extraction through consumption of various energy resources and per energy production equivalent measures
  • Latest studies about the benefits and costs of "clean coal" and "fracking"
  • Physical land use limitations
  • Current and future food production and the impact of meat consumption (feed lots, methane, runoff, animal feed requirement and the land needed to support that consumption, impacts of the export of the Western diet, etc.)
  • Current and future (based on technological progress) limitations of cost effective wind power production on land and over water
  • Potable water
  • Current and future needs, limitations, and technological advances
  • Progress of desalinization technologies and costs
  • References

    Anderson, Curt. 2005. Seas, Trees and Economies. University of Missouri St.-Louis Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Education (

    Anderson, Curt. 1999. Economics and the Environment. National Council on Economic Education.

    Downloadable version of this essay

    Market Based Economies and Sustainability (Microsoft Word 45kB Jun14 12)