Sustainability Column: Sustaining Neoliberalism

Anna McHugh

In one of my education studies courses, Politics in Education, I continue to come across the term neoliberalism. An education studies class would not be complete without discussions on neoliberalism and all that it means and affects. Neoliberal policy, mentalities and actions are influenced by an idea that society is most efficient and most fair when markets are deregulated, when governments are not involved in market schemes and when consumers have the choice to purchase and consume any product on the market. The free market is where neoliberals believe issues will be fixed.

As an environmental studies major and an education studies minor, my education and my passion often involves connecting these two topics. And one of the ways that sustainability connects to this discipline is through neoliberalism. Environmental policy often encompasses neoliberal values in order to make these changes economically viable. Policies regarding energy usage, waste and recycling use the free market to make sustainable practices valuable and viable for larger entities. Even in climate mitigation strategies, neoliberalism comes into play, with policies including buying trees in less politically and economically stable countries to off-set carbon footprints. While this is effective for big entities and creates motivations, is it sustainable? Do consumption levels become sustainable in this free market?

Neoliberalism also helps to perpetuate inequalities and inequities through a deregulated economy. Inequities often create an unequal distribution of communities across an area, which results in environmental justice topics and discussions. It is the neoliberal market which allowed for corporations and governments to overconsume and exploit natural resources, becoming a major cause of global climate change. It is neoliberalism that has created the powerful dynamic between companies involved in natural resources and government policies, making sustainable actions harder to agree upon. Sustainability involves balances: a social balance, economic balance and natural balance, but is this possible in a society in which neoliberalism continues to spread across the world disguised as globalization? Can communities become sustainable and self-organizing in regards to environmental action in a world which stresses and values consumption and capital? Can sustainability and neoliberalism exist and interact with one another?