Beyond Regulation: New Norms Needed for the American Dream

Beyond Regulation: New Norms Needed for the American Dream

Posted by

NATIONAL JOURNAL 07/01/13
By Michael Shank

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report citing that America could slow its obesity epidemic through a calorie tax. By putting a price on calories, much like we did with tobacco to slow tobacco use and ultimately the cancer epidemic in our country, we could make America healthier, save lives, and undermine the health risks associated with obesity. This is exactly what New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg is calculating and considering when limiting excessive and unhealthy access to sugary sodas.

The same goes for carbon, which is why regulation must be a primary tool. Yes, the private sector will go, and is going, green, whether for profit’s sake, public relations motive, employee priority, or a genuine corporate commitment to sustainability. The public sector is doing the same for similar reasons. But all of this, no matter how much, or how well intentioned, will still be insufficient. It won’t be enough to prevent global warming or mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.

Even if the Environmental Protection Agency puts a strict cap on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, it still won’t stop the bleeding – which is why we have to think very differently about how we live on this planet.

This is where regulation, at least the way it’s being conceived by President Barack Obama and, eventually, by the US Congress, falls short. Even if you cap carbon from power plants (or, more preferably, tax carbon irrespective of source), unless we rethink consumption, our climate will continue to warm.

Regulation will, undoubtedly, make an essential dent in carbon emissions but it won’t substantially slow the rate of warming. Consider this. American consumption, some of the most exhaustive and exploitative on the planet, requires 20-25 tons of carbon emissions per American per year. Runners up include China, at 4-5 tons per person per year, and India, at 1-2 tons per person per year.

As the rest of the world aspires to live like America, and pursue the American dream, the carbon emitted and resources exploited will be massive. There won’t be enough resources, in fact, to meet the need, especially as the world’s population grows to 9-10 billion by 2050 – five times what the world’s population was just one hundred years earlier.

The question must be then, instead of only regulation, how do we reset norms on consumption? In America, bigger is better and more is mighty, whether it’s the car, the house, the clothes, the jewelry, or the vacation. Can America find the wherewithal and the empathy to live simply so that others around the world can simply live? It would certainly be a noble task and one worth pursuing. We are norm-setters, so let’s set a different standard for living off the land. If we don’t, we will lose it entirely. Our options are massive short-term gains, wherein we live large, or long-term gains, where we live well, but sustainably – and so does everyone else.

Norms can’t be regulated, however. And therein lies the rub. But we do dream; that is what the American project is all about, the American dream. And this is what dreams are made of. The key is to be sure we’re alive in the future to enjoy them.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.