09/29/2011 06:16 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2011

It's Sustainability Stupid

It's more than a year since president Sebastián Piñera triumphantly led the epic rescue of the 33 miners and his government's popularity was soaring. Many things have changed in a year. The government's approval ratings are in record lows, under 30 percent, at the same time that the Chilean economy is growing and unemployment is at levels the United States could only dream of.

In the nineties James Carville said "It's the economy, stupid", and that may still hold true in the outcome of the upcoming 2012 U.S. election. Government advisers in Chile are clearly baffled as to why positive economic indicators don't translate into government approval in Chile.

Despite Chile's growth, distribution of wealth is one of the most unequal of OECD states. For instance the government has been pushing the approval of the controversial Hidroaysen project, a multi-billion dollar series of hydroelectric plants to be constructed in the pristine Patagonia. Despite claims that this project is key for maintaining growth, and that energy costs will drop, 64 percent of people reject the project. This high rejection led to a communications offensive attacking those who opposed the project, trying to pose them as irrational, obtuse, and anti-development. Some blame this situation to the U.S.-based NRDC's involvement in funding some of the media campaigns opposing the project. Yet the establishment overlooked how much Chileans' views on the environment have changed in the past decade. In the middle of the Asian crisis in 2000 Chileans were asked: "Would you be willing to sacrifice jobs and productivity to protect the environment?." 50 percent said yes. In 2010 the question was repeated. This time 69 percent said yes. It seems that Chileans are more aware of the environment, and that they might not feel they're getting their fair share of growth.

After the environmental movement flexed its muscle for the first time, organizing protests of 50,000 or more people (bigger than any protests since the Pinochet regime) other social causes saw the time was right for other demands. University students are currently on an ongoing three month strike demanding higher public funding to education, reducing tuition rates, banning for-profit education, and even calling for referendums and deep reforms in the electoral system, which forces Chileans to choose between the two big conglomerates. The political establishment has tried to undermine these demands, but the public supports students by 89 percent.

How did a country that was on the path to development all of a sudden start questioning the very basis of their economic model? The answer lies in sustainability. First off, uneven distribution of wealth. Secondly, environmental issues tend to concentrate near lower income families. People saw that rapid growth many times meant killing off native species due to incomplete environmental impact assessments. They saw their cities threatened by air pollution, and the rising economic costs of respiratory disease treatment rising due to lack of competition between pharmacies. They saw the salmon industry collapse due to lack of environmental controls, which was once the second largest export sector. They saw that they could access higher education but at predatory loan rates. They saw that they had to pick between two parties which took turns administering the same economic model. And they saw that despite their opposition to projects or policies there was nothing they could do to prevent them.

Indeed they saw that free market policies did not lead to lower rates and higher competition. They saw that it led to higher prices and monopolies. In the 90s it was the economy. But in this decade, when trickle down economics don't seem to be doing the job, it's sustainability, stupid.