I was feeling discouraged when I wrote yesterday's blog entry Beyond our Means, so maybe it's more negative than I would normally intend.
My point is that good intentions alone aren't enough. If they were, stores like The Gap wouldn't sell clothes made in sweatshops, companies like Shell wouldn't be smashing indigenous people in Nigeria, and there wouldn't be more new SUVs than cars on the road.
You don't need to be a free market ideologue to recognize that people respond to incentives. If the cost of an unsustainable activity goes up - say, by internalizing the cost of its consequences in the price - then fewer people will choose it.
Governments create the regulatory framework in which the incentives that guide our actions - mainly through price signals - are shaped. Democratic governments exist so that people have another means, outside the marketplace, to express their values and preferences.
Think of it this way: if I want to lose weight and I eat too many potato chips, I can choose to stop bringing chips into the house and make sure plenty of fresh fruit and chopped veggies are handy. That way, when I want a snack, its easier to reach for the healthy stuff and harder to reach for the junk. I've changed the framework in my house so that it's easier to make good choices.
At a national level, citizens can choose to make it easier to make good choices as well, by demanding that governments raise the price of harmful choices to reflect their true cost. Consider a city like Portland, which spent the past two decades blocking sprawl development on rural land, ripping up highways, installing light rail lines, adding bike lanes through the city, removing "free" parking, and improving the quality of sidewalks with more street-facing buildings, mixed building use, and high quality density.
Not surprisingly, fewer people now choose to drive, and more people choose to walk, cycle, or take public transit. The city's land use and transportation policy is wildly popular because people recognize that it's easier to make the healthy choice when it's more available.
Until that happens - until citizens organize, build relationships, and apply pressure to governments to do their will - mere good intentions will not be enough to effect meaningful, lasting change.
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