Thomas Sowell’s book, Basic Economics, is required reading for Design Management students at Pratt. In his book, Sowell champions the principals of laissez-fair economics and the benefits of capitalistic free markets. As Americans, we enjoy privileges that many in the world do not and our higher standard of living is without a doubt the result of many capitalist principals.
But, while costs are reduced, prices become more affordable and living standards rise, I can’t help but question the human and environmental costs involved — factors that design strategists are trained to consider. Sowell removes the human element from economics and simply describes it as a “study of cause-and-effect relationships in an economy [… having] nothing to say about social philosophy or moral values….” Furthermore, he claims that it is “ignorance” that leads people to explain economics by “greed” (Sowell, 2007, p. 92).[i]
In the midst of reading Sowell’s book, I saw a story on mountaintop removal coal mining in Boone County, West Virginia. According to NBC reporter, Alex Moe, “in a few months, [mountaintop removal] destroys what the earth took tens of millions of years to build.” Mountaintop removal literally means just that: explosives blast off the overburden of mountains — layers of rock and soil — to expose underlying coal seams for extraction. The coal is used to generate energy. Coal is the most common source for electricity, generating more than half of the country’s electricity. While mountaintop removal is efficient and cost effective, once thriving mountain communities with unique cultures have been reduced to nothing, water supplies contaminated and landscapes decimated. Maria Gunnoe, a local resident, recalled the destruction of these communities as a bitter reminder of the power of big business: “everything that you’ve ever enjoyed in your life is being sacrificed for greed.” I couldn’t help but compare Gunnoe’s feelings to Sowell’s rationale.
Sowell might argue this reaction is simply due to ignorance and misunderstanding of how economics works. But while big business unsustainably extracts non-renewable resources, families loose their homes, livelihood and sense of community. The story of mountaintop removal in Boone County evoked feelings of sympathy and frustration, but I also felt a sense of hope. As a student of Design Management, I design triple bottom line strategies. It made me feel good to be part of a program that is teaching me how to solve business problems, preserve the environment and enhance communities so that places like Boone County are not destroyed for the sake of efficiency and mass production. Not so simple or “basic”, I admit, but my fellow Design Managers and I are up to the challenge.
[i] Sowell, T. (2007). Basic economics: a common sense guide to the economy. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Photo: Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition