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Good Health Requires Different Economics

by Dr. Trevor Hancock

Editor’s note: A version of this post ran originally in the Times Colonist.

TH - PHSPFor the past three years, I have been leading an important project for the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA), which led to the release on May 25th of our Discussion Paper and a 100-page technical report on global change and public health.

In these documents, we identify what we call the “ecological determinants of health”: clean air and water, food, materials, fuel, the great cycles of water, nitrogen and phosphorus, detoxification of wastes, climate stability, and others.

These determinants of health come from the Earth’s natural ecosystems, and they are threatened by the massive and still growing human-induced global ecological changes now underway. These changes thus represent the greatest threat to the health of the public in the 21st century. They include the following:

  • Global warming and resultant climate instability;
  • The contamination of all ecosystems and food chains—and all humans—with persistent organic pollutants and other novel entities such as nano-particles;
  • The depletion of key resources and damage to ecosystems that provide life-supporting “goods and services”; and
  • The loss of species and biodiversity, a human-induced “sixth great extinction” that threatens the overall web of life.
dreamstime_s_26094052

Human-induced global ecological changes are threatening public health.  Photo Credit: © Stockshoppe | Dreamstime.com

Here I explore some of the many issues and approaches we discuss in our report, beginning with the underlying values and beliefs that drive the ecological changes we are witness to, and the changes in those values and beliefs we need to create.

The drivers of the ecological changes noted above, now collectively being referred to as “The Anthropocene,” are a combination of population growth and affluence, with technology sometimes amplifying and sometimes reducing their impact. But underlying these drivers is an increasingly globally shared set of values and beliefs that together comprise “modernism.” The central value is a belief in “progress,” and that progress equates with growth, especially growth in material wellbeing.

This leads to the pursuit of economic growth to meet the growing demands of a growing population. But this is the fundamental problem because, in our current economic system, growth means more demands on the Earth’s natural resources and more damage to its ecosystems.

Such damage is resulting in the decline, and may result in the collapse, of key ecosystem functions that are the basis for the life and survival of humans and other life forms; when ecosystems decline or collapse, so too do the societies that are dependent upon them. This damage in turn undermines the economy and threatens the continued wellbeing and even the very survival of communities, societies, and our increasingly interconnected global civilisation.

Moreover, as resources become scarce and ecosystems fragile, those with wealth and power will ensure their access to them, even if it means others—including other humans and other species—have less. This will both heighten global and local inequity and push more ecosystems toward collapse and more species toward extinction. It will also heighten the potential for both local and global strife.

Faced with these immense challenges of potential ecological and social decline and collapse, the only answer from conventional economics is more growth. But continued conventional growth in a finite system—the Earth—is clearly impossible when it involves more growth in demand for resources and more strain upon our increasingly fragile life-supporting ecosystems. There are indeed limits to growth—or to be more precise, there is a limit to growth, and that limit is the Earth itself.

Our current economic system is broken and must be discarded and replaced with an economic system that is compatible with the Earth and all its ecosystems and resources. This will require a massive global change in the underlying cultural and political values that drive our current economic system.

That change has to begin with the wealthy countries because we cannot say, in effect, that we will keep what we have but the rest of the world cannot have what we have because there isn’t enough to go around. We in the wealthy countries need to shift our focus from the pursuit of economic development to the pursuit of a higher goal: human development that is equitable and sustainable.

After all, what business are we in—or should we be in—as societies and governments? Are we here to grow the economy? Is that really the ultimate human purpose? Or are we here to “grow” people? And are we here only to “grow” some people—people like us, perhaps?—or are we here to pursue a more noble purpose: ensuring the achievement by everyone of the highest human potential of which they are capable, in a manner that is ecologically sustainable and socially just?

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a public health physician and a professor at the School of Public Health and Social Policy at the University of Victoria. He has played a key role in founding several environment-focused organizations, including the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care. In the 1980’s, Dr. Hancock was one of the founders and the first leader of the Green Party in Canada. 

thancock@uvic.ca

 

Thoughts on Pope Francis’ Laudato Si

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyAs a Protestant Christian my devotion to the Catholic Church has been rather minimal, based largely on respect for early church history, and for love of an aunt who was a nun. In recent times the Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control, plus the pedophile and cover-up scandals, further alienated me. Like many others I first viewed Pope Francis as perhaps a breath of fresh air, but little more. After reading his encyclical on environment and justice, dare I hope that what I considered merely “fresh air” could actually be the wind of Pentecost filling the Church anew with the Spirit? Maybe. At a minimum he has given us a more truthful, informed, and courageous analysis of the environmental and moral crisis than have our secular political leaders.

True, the important question of population was conspicuous by its near absence. In an earlier offhand remark, however, Francis said that Catholics don’t need to breed “like rabbits,” and pointed to the Church’s doctrine of responsible parenthood. Perhaps he will follow up on that in a future encyclical. In any case, most lay Catholics have for some time stopped listening to Popes on contraception. The popular attitude is expressed in a cartoon showing an Italian mamma wagging her finger at the Pontiff and saying, You no playa da game; you no maka da rules.” Discussing population would not have changed realities, and would have aroused official opposition and distracted attention from the major points of the encyclical. So I will follow Francis’ politic example and put the population question aside, but with a reference to historian John T. Noonan, Jr.’s classic book, Contraception,1 which sorts out the history of doctrine on this issue.

The big ideas of the encyclical are Creation care and justice, and the failure of our technocratic growth economy to provide either justice or care for Creation. Also discussed was the integration of science and religion as necessary, though different, avenues to truth. And yes, the Pope supports the scientific consensus on the reality of climate change, but, media monomania to the contrary, the encyclical is about far more than that.2

Pope Francis.aletela.org

Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical “Laudato Si, On Care for our Common Home” was released on June 18. Photo credit: Aletela.org

Francis’ voice is of course not the first to come from Christians in defense of Creation. In addition to his ancient namesake from Assisi, Francis also recognized Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who has for two decades now been organizing conferences and speaking out in defense of rivers and oceans, including the Black Sea. The Orthodox Church lost a generation of believers to Communistic atheism, but is gaining back many young people attracted to the theology of Creation and the actions it inspires. Liberal mainline Protestant Christians, and more recently, conservative Evangelicals, have also found their ecological conscience. So Francis’ encyclical would seem to be a capstone that unifies the main divisions of Christianity on at least the fundamental recognition that we have a shamefully neglected duty to care for the Earth out of which we evolved, and to share the Earth’s life support more equitably with each other, with the future, and with other creatures. Many atheists also agree, while claiming that their agreement owes nothing to Judeo-Christian tradition. That is historically questionable, but their support is welcome nonetheless.

This theology of Creation should not be confused with the evolution-denying, anti-science views of some Christian biblical literalists (confusingly called “Creationists” rather than “literalists”). Mankind’s duty to care for Creation, through which humans have evolved to reflect at least the faint image of their Creator, conflicts headlong with the current dominant idolatry of growthism and technological Gnosticism. The idea of duty to care for Creation also conflicts with the materialist determinism of neo-Darwinist fundamentalists who see “Creation” as the random result of multiplying infinitesimal probabilities by an infinite number of trials. The policy implication of determinism (even if stochastic) is that purposeful policy is illusory, both practically and morally. Creation care is also incompatible with the big lie that sharing the Earth’s limited resources is unnecessary because economic growth will make us all rich. Francis calls this magical thinking. He skates fairly close to the idea of steady-state economics, of qualitative development without quantitative growth in scale, although this concept is not specifically considered. Consider his paragraph 193:

In any event, if in some cases sustainable development were to involve new forms of growth, then in other cases, given the insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many decades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late. We know how unsustainable is the behaviour of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.

In the last sentence “decreased growth” seems an inexact English translation from the Spanish version “decrecimiento,” or the Italian version “decrescita” (likely the original languages of the document), which should be translated as “degrowth” or negative growth, which is of course stronger than “decreased growth.”3

Laudato Si is already receiving both strong support and resistance. The resistance testifies to the radical nature of Francis’ renewal of the basic doctrine of the Earth and cosmos as God’s Creation. Pope Francis will be known by the enemies this encyclical makes for him, and these enemies may well be his strength. So far in the US they are not an impressive lot: the Heartland Institute, Jeb Bush, Senator James Inhofe, Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, and others. Unfortunately they represent billions in special-interest money, and have a big corporate media megaphone. The encyclical calls out the opponents and forces them to defend themselves. To give them the benefit of the doubt, they may really think that Francis is rendering to God what actually belongs to Caesar’s oligarchy. But neither Caesar, nor the market, nor technology created us, or the earth that sustains us. Thanks to Francis for making that very clear when so many are denying it, either explicitly or implicitly.

 


Notes:

1. John T. Noonan, Jr., Contraception: A History of its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Belknap Press, 1986. Noonan demonstrates the lack of a biblical basis for opposition to contraception, as well as the origins of church doctrine in secular Roman law, which was absorbed into canon law. The ancient Roman meaning of “proletariat” was “the lowest class, poor and exempt from taxes, and useful to the republic mainly for the procreation of children.” Clearly contraception was not indicated for them, although tolerated for patricians. This literal meaning of proletariat as the prolific class was lost when Marx redefined the word to mean “non owners of the means of production.” But the Malthusian connection with overpopulation and cheap labor has remained real, even if downplayed by Marxists as well as Catholics.

2. The Pope’s condemnation of carbon trading reflects a common misunderstanding of the cap-auction-trade policy, unfortunately shared by some leading climate scientists. See Joseph Heath, “Pope Francis’ Climate Error,” New York Times, June 19, 2015.

3. Thanks to Joan Martinez-Alier for pointing this out.

 

Preempting a Misleading Argument: Why Environmental Problems Will Stop Tracking with GDP

by Brian Czech

Brian CzechI hate to say I told you so, and could be too dead to do so, so I’ll tell you in advance: One decade soon, environmental problems will stop tracking with GDP.

But the reasons? Well, they probably aren’t what you think, especially if you’ve been drinking the green Kool-Aid.

For decades, big-picture ecologists and eventually the “ecological economists” pointed out the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. Every tick of GDP came with the tock of habitat loss, pollution, and, as we gradually realized, climate change. A growing GDP requires a growing human population or a growing amount of goods and services per person. In the American experience of the 20th century, it was easy to see both – population and per capita consumption – spiraling upward, and just as easy to see the environmental impacts reverberating outward. Much of the world saw the same, although in some countries GDP growth was driven almost entirely by population growth.

Photo Credit: Simon Fraser University

In areas where shale-drilling/hydraulic fracturing is heavy, a dense web of roads, pipelines, and well pads turn continuous forests and grasslands into fragmented islands. Photo Credit: Simon Fraser University

Unfortunately, a lot of time was spent overcoming fallacious but slick-sounding shibboleths like “green growth,” “dematerializing” the economy, and the “environmental Kuznets curve.” It seemed these were – or easily could have been –designed by advertisers on Madison Avenue, Big Money in general, or economists in their service, to prevent consumers and policy makers from responding rationally to environmental deterioration. Suggestive phrases such as “consumer confidence” spurred the consumer along, buying more stuff to increase the profits of corporations and, in turn, the campaign purses of politicians.

Meanwhile, those who studied, wrote, or simply worried about the effects of economic growth on the environment (and therefore the future economy) were portrayed and marginalized as tree huggers, earth firsters, or, as I once heard them called by a Scotland Yard detective at an intelligence conference, “the great unwashed.”

Some of us had to go so far as debating economists and, shockingly, ecologists who parroted the 1990’s political rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” I even debated a future president of The Wildlife Society (TWS), who at the time was a biologist employed by the timber industry and a gadfly in TWS attempts to formulate a TWS position on economic growth. After our debate, I was told he was roundly defeated, and in subsequent years he refrained from the win-win rhetoric. (Hopefully it was that ability to reconnoiter with the truth that explains his electoral victory.)

Those of us who recognized the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection won the debates because we were right and we demonstrated it, ad nauseum, theoretically and empirically. We had to study the issue up and down, inside and out, because Big Money had far more resources to try defeating us at every turn. Eventually we published enough articles, organized enough conferences, and won enough debates that today, at least in professional natural resources circles, you’d seem, well… no smarter than a hedgehog if you tried to claim we can have our cake and eat it too.

So it is with ample irony that soon enough, we’ll enter an age where GDP won’t track with biodiversity loss, pollution, climate change, and other indicators of environmental deterioration. Why? Because, at some point during the 21st century and perhaps very soon, there won’t be enough resources left for GDP growth. Just as surely as the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, there is a limit to growth, and it’s not as far off as the growth polyannas would have you think.

Long after GDP growth grinds to a halt, biodiversity will continue declining.  Photo Credit: Smudge 9000

Let’s consider what happens to biodiversity – nonhuman species in particular – in the days beyond growth. Long after GDP growth grinds to a halt, biodiversity will continue declining for two reasons. The first is that many of the environmental effects of earlier GDP growth will be delayed. For example, when a species’ habitat is degraded by a pipeline here and a timber sale there, the species doesn’t instantly disappear. Yet a marginal drop in the rate of reproduction and a marginal increase in the rate of mortality can put the species on a path to extinction just as surely as you pay taxes.

Furthermore, habitat degradation can itself be a drawn-out process. The polar ice caps are on their way out, and polar bears along with them. Yet the ice won’t be gone and the polar bear won’t be extinct for some decades, probably well after GDP has stopped growing. And the polar bear is on the tip of the iceberg, as species en masse may be ushered off the poles as if on some geological conveyor belt running at the speed of climate change.

The second reason biodiversity will continue to decline long after GDP stops growing is because the cessation of GDP growth doesn’t mean corporations and countries will stop trying to grow the GDP. Far from it. As long as economic growth remains the primary policy goal of nations, the environmental impact of pursuing such growth will worsen, because nations will be pulling out all the stops to achieve it. This too is a process already underway; witness the mining of tar sands for exceedingly crude oil.

Yet tough times for the truth await because the next wave of polyannas will be busy perverting the truth from a different angle. Instead of arguing that GDP growth was a benefit to biodiversity  – with the shallow argument that it put more money into conservation programs – they’ll be pointing to the fact that species are declining despite no growth in GDP. “Where’s the correlation,” they’ll ask, “between GDP and biodiversity loss?”

Alas, we’ve been careful all along, as good scientists are, to note that correlation doesn’t prove causality. Likewise, a lack of correlation doesn’t disprove causality. Economic growth – increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, entailing a growing population and per capita consumption – has been the limiting factor for wildlife in the aggregate for the broad sweep of Homo sapiens’ reign on Earth. Beginning in the 1930s such growth was measured with GDP, and beginning in the 1970s species endangerment in the U.S. was measured by the length of the list of federally listed threatened and endangered species.

For decades the correlation between GDP and species endangerment was like the correlation between chickens and eggs. A statistic called the R-squared value was even used to measure just how tight. As such, the correlation was simply additional, circumstantial evidence for the conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation. It was never essential, though, for it was bloodily evident that the causes of species endangerment were a list of economic sectors, infrastructure, and byproducts. To think it wasn’t the economy causing all that species endangerment was like thinking all that lung cancer in the 70’s had nothing to do with cigarettes.

Now when the Marlboro man stopped smoking, he didn’t stop choking. No, he continued choking, all the way to death, from lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But hey, in those final non-smoking years, the correlation between cigarettes and cancer cells was non-existent. Would anyone put it past Big Tobacco (the Seven Dwarves come to mind) to use this lack of correlation as evidence that tobacco doesn’t cause cancer?

Didn’t think so.

Well, Big Money – Wall Street, Madison Avenue, K Street too – we’re on to you. We know you’ll claim in decades to come that economic growth is not the cause of environmental deterioration. You’ll use the lack of correlation between GDP and species listings as one of your unscrupulous arguments. And you’ll be as wrong then as you have been heretofore.

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it preemptively.

Earth Day Message: Double the Native Forest Cover

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderEarth Day began 45 years ago on April 22, 1970. The first Earth Day mobilized huge numbers of people to become active in efforts to curtail pollution and protect important ecosystems like forests. As we approach Earth Day this year, the founder of the Rainforest Action Network, Randy Hayes, and other visionary leaders are calling for a doubling of the native forest canopy on the earth. They are circulating a petition calling on all people to work together to achieve this goal. (See petition below.)

A powerful reforestation initiative will help achieve the objectives of a steady state, sustainable, true cost economy. Meaningful employment can be increased by planting native trees, restoring natural habitats, and removing unneeded roads. Restoring the natural balance of greenhouse gases can foster a healthy society.

Here is the big economic connection: forests help regulate or moderate the global temperature, which is essential to prevent enormous losses in grain yields–losses that could spawn food riots and wars. Plant ecologists estimate that at high temperatures, every increase of one degree Celsius causes a 10% drop in grain yields. An urgent global effort is underway to hold the increase below two degrees Celsius. This cannot be achieved unless changes are made to save and restore forest cover.

In addition to the threats to grain production from global temperature increases, the dramatic loss of native forest cover is causing devastating harm to the life support systems of our planet. For instance, forest destruction is a major cause of loss of plant and animal species, water loss, desiccation of the land, soil erosion, and sedimentation of fishery habitat. The loss of forests exacerbates climate destabilization, leading to more severe and costly weather disasters now amounting to several hundred billion dollars per year. The destruction of forests is leading humanity away from a sustainable civilization and a prospering true cost economy.

Here are a few facts about what has been happening to forests this century. The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates 12% of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and degradation of forests. About 30% of the world’s forests have been cleared and another 20% degraded. Only about 15% remain in relatively healthy native condition. Global deforestation rates are severe, with 13 million hectares having been lost each year from 2000-2010.

Reforestation - USFS Region 5

Photo Credit: USFS Region 5

Fortunately, there is hope because experts have identified a huge potential for restoring forest cover equivalent to an area twice the size of China (2 billion hectares). Even in severely degraded zones such as the Loess Plateau in China, some successful measures have curbed erosion and brought back a lush vegetative cover that has improved food security, biodiversity, and local income. Since Earth Day 1970, impressive efforts have been taken to set aside forest lands for parks, wilderness, wildlife, spiritual contemplation, and protection of water supplies. We can build on these.

Across the globe, there is hope because communities with legal rights to at least 513 million hectares of forest, making up one-eighth of the world’s forests, have succeeded in forest preservation. These community forests hold an estimated 38 billion tons of carbon. If these forests that act as carbon sinks were eliminated, there would be a huge increase of carbon released into the atmosphere. WRI calculates that this amounts to 29 times the annual carbon footprint of all passenger vehicles in the world.

One example of the success of forest communities can be seen in the Brazilian Amazon, the largest intact forest in the world. From 2000 to 2012, deforestation was 11 times lower in indigenous community forests that have strong legal recognition and government protection than in other parts of the Amazon.

We are at a crossroads. The courageous step called for in the petition below could help lead us to a future no longer driven by overconsumption of natural resources, technologies that needlessly damage the environment, overpopulation, and political economies that foster problematic consumption.

 

DECLARATION TO DOUBLE NATIVE FORESTS

To Everyone Seeking a Just and Ecologically Sustainable Society:
Doubling the Size of Native Forest Canopy Will Help Us Get There

To live in harmony with the planet and each other we need the courage to act on a shared vision of a better world. And we need to act NOW.

We, the undersigned, put forth these collective thoughts and invite others to share their visions.

  • We know forests are a fundamental expression of the natural world and are key to supporting all life on Earth.
  • We have witnessed how the destruction of the world’s forests degrades the quality of human life and undermines the prospects for productive and vibrant economies.
  • We know that carbon-rich natural habitats are critical to the restoration of natural climatic patterns.
  • We believe we must reverse the frightening concentration of greenhouse gases–now at 400 PPM–and get back to pre-Industrial Revolution levels of 280 PPM.

We believe that this dramatic mathematical U-turn is our only hope of preventing the blue sky from turning into a toxic furnace.

We, the undersigned, call for:

  • A halt to all deforestation.
  • A doubling of the native forest canopy in less than two decades.

Furthermore, we call for this with the intent to:

  • Increase meaningful employment by planting native trees, restoring natural habitats, and removing unneeded roads.
  • Help return the natural balance of greenhouse gases and foster a healthy society.
  • Maintain natural functions to purify the air and water and support the web of life.

Finally, we call upon all people–our communities and our business and political leaders–to work together to achieve this goal.

Such a courageous step could help lead us to a future no longer driven by overconsumption of natural resources, technologies that needlessly damage the environment, overpopulation, and political economies that foster problematic consumption.

When heading for the edge of a cliff, the solution may be as simple as turning around and going in a different direction. Native forest protection and restoration is key to this sensible U-turn. A shift to a better world is within our grasp, but we must collectively envision and enact it.

This is the great U-turn we seek.

Signed:

Randy Hayes, Executive Director Foundation Earth
Eric Dinerstein, Director, Biodiversity & Wildlife Solutions RESOLVE
Don Weeden, Executive Director Weeden Foundation
Andy Kimbrell, Executive Director Center for Food Safety
Brent Blackwelder, President Emeritus Friends of the Earth

Add your signature here.

Animal Welfare: Seeing the Forest for the Denizens

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechIf you’re a Huffington Post reader, your love of animals has been nurtured by “Hedgehogs Being Adorable,” “Baby Hippo Has Won Our Hearts,” and other such gems. The Post, The Animal Blog, and various animal-lover media take a heartfelt approach to the appreciation of animals–wild as well as domesticated–reminding us of the needs and vulnerabilities of our fellow creatures. It’s a refreshing approach, compared to the stodgy science and economics of conservation.

And it’s important. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by the way in which its animals are treated.” Abraham Lincoln said, “I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.” Animal welfare is a barometer of national “goodness” in a sense that resonates with our common sense.

Yet if we are serious about animal welfare, we have to get beyond the mere adoration of hedgehogs and hippos. We have to face up to the big-picture, systematic erosion of wild animal welfare. It’s all around us and getting worse by the day, and our public policies precipitate it.

The most prevalent source of animal suffering is habitat destruction. Habitat includes food, water, cover, and space. When any of these elements are destroyed or depleted, wild animals suffer and often die more miserable deaths than if killed by hunters or predators.

Some animals survive an initial wave of habitat destruction only to be stranded in an unfamiliar, unforgiving environment. When a food or water source is destroyed, wild animals may starve, die of thirst, or suffer from malnutrition and the associated agonies. When thermal cover is lost, animals expend valuable time and energy trying to regulate body temperature. This lowers the time and energy available for feeding, playing, and mating. When hiding cover is lost, wild animals experience fear and stress, seeking cover from predators that may or may not be present.

What kind of a life does that sound like? It would be like getting thrown out of your home, into a perilous world with no social net, no health system, no Salvation Army, and no street corner to beg from. Yet it’s the life we’ve been forcing animals into by the million. How can we stop?

Nervous now, future worse: pronghorn antelope at the edge of a growing economy. Photo Credit: Michael Shealy

Nervous now, future worse: pronghorn antelope at the edge of a growing economy. Photo Credit: Michael Shealy

We often hear of “human activity” being the cause of habitat loss. That’s a start, recognizing our basic role in the problem, but we have to dig deeper to detect precisely what type of human activity is problematic. After all, the habitat destruction caused by humans beings isn’t spiritual activity, or neighborhood activity, or political activity (at least not directly), but almost always economic activity.

The macroeconomic nature of the problem is evident when we consider the causes of species endangerment. These causes are essentially the sectors and byproducts of the whole, interwoven economy, starting with agricultural and extractive sectors such as mining, logging, and livestock production. These activities directly remove or degrade the habitat components required by wild animals.

Another major cause of endangerment is urbanization. Urbanization reflects the growth of the labor force and consumer population as well as a variety of light industrial and service sectors. Few types of habitat destruction are as complete as urbanization. While extractive activities can be a traumatic experience for the denizens of wildlands, logging, ranching, and even mining usually leaves some habitat components. But when an urban area expands, it does so with pavement, buildings, and infrastructure. These developments are devastating to most of the animals present.

The economic system extends far into the countryside, too. Roads, reservoirs, pipelines, power lines, solar arrays, and wind farms are examples.

It would be hard to conceive of a more prevalent danger to animals than roads. Roads and the cars upon them leave countless animals mangled and left, during their final hours, to be picked apart by wild and domestic scavengers. Power lines induce electrocution, a significant source of bird death and crippling. Power line collisions cause their share as well. Wind farms and solar arrays, thought to be the keys to “green growth,” are the latest hurdles for migratory birds.

Pollution is an inevitable byproduct of economic production. Pollution is an insidious and omnipresent threat to wild animals. Whether it’s nerve damage from pesticides, bone loss from lead poisoning, or one of the many other horrible symptoms of physiology gone wrong, pollutants ensure some of the most excruciating diseases and slowest deaths in the animal kingdom.

Climate change is another threat to species, although its mechanisms are less direct. Temperature is a key factor in the functioning of ecosystems and the welfare of the animals therein. Climate change is pushing polar bears and other polar species off the ends of the earth; at what point will this climate-controlled conveyor belt stop? Climate change, too, is a result of a growing (and fossil-fueled) economy.

We should give thanks for the Humane Society, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. These and related organizations do the good work that Gandhi and Lincoln would have endorsed. Yet when is the last time you’ve heard these organizations give a hoot about economic growth, the single biggest threat to animal welfare?

And why does no one put in a word for our furry and feathered friends when Congress, the President, and the Fed pull out all the stops for GDP growth? Where are the advocates of humane treatment of animals, when the biggest decisions are made about the rate of habitat loss and therefore animal suffering? When a hundredth percentage point less in GDP growth could save hundreds of thousands of animals a year?

Why don’t we have a mainstream media, which isn’t afraid to expose nastiness to horses and chickens, talking about the millions of animals suffering at the cumulative hand of economic growth? Has economic growth become the inconvenient truth for animal welfare?

It’s definitely inconvenient–and that’s an understatement–for millions of animals.

Paul Krugman on Limits to Growth: Beware the Bathwater

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechCongratulations to Paul Krugman, whose New York Times opinion on “Slow Steaming and the Supposed Limits to Growth” hit the bulls-eye of at least one balloon. Landing at Washington-National the very day his opinion column appeared was like crashing back into the growth fetish of the American Fourth Estate. Out came the fresh air of an Australian balloon; back to the polluted, cynical rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

Why the drama with Krugman’s column? Partly due to uncanny timing; partly due to the stark juxtaposition of opinions. Having delivered the keynote address–on limits to growth no less–at the Australian Academy of Science’s annual conference on environmental science, it struck me that decades of careful research could be undermined by the presumptuous pen of a well-placed economist. Something is wrong with that picture.

But only for so long, because those of us who recognize limits to growth have sound science, common sense, and burgeoning evidence on our side. The same cannot be said for Krugman’s opinion.

Krugman got off to a shaky start with the very title of his column. No matter what he could say about “slow steaming,” this was bound to be an article wrong-headed in using one sector (shipping) for drawing broad conclusions about a macroeconomic issue (economic growth). To extend a conclusion from the part to the whole is to commit the fallacy of composition. In this case, it’s a bit like Krugman saying, “Your fingernails keep growing; why not the rest of you too?”

The mistake is common and destructive. When this mistake is made by a highly acclaimed economist in a widely-read opinion, the potential for destruction is multiplied. Politicians hide behind such Pollyannaish opinions to pull out all the stops–fiscal and monetary–for economic growth. The casualties include not only environmental protection but the future economy and ultimately national security.

Next, in Krugman’s lead-in paragraph he laments the “unholy alliance on behalf of the proposition that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is incompatible with growing real GDP.” Already we have two more problems. First, the argument alluded to in the title–that is, refuting limits to growth–is reduced to refuting just one negative impact of growth (that is, climate change). What about all the other impacts and limitations of economic growth: liquidation of natural resources, pollution at large, habitat loss, biodiversity decline, and social side effects such as noise, congestion, and stress?

Second, in a maxed-out, over-stimulated, 90% fossil-fueled economy, Krugman wants us to believe we can grow the economy even more while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. No need to worry about little trends such as tar-sands mining in Canada, coal mining in China, and fracking in the USA. Slower steaming will save the day on climate change, and presumably for the rest of the planetary ecosystem.

Let’s not let Krugman delude us. “Growing real GDP” isn’t about an efficiency gain here and there. It means increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It entails a growing human population and/or per capita consumption. It means growing the whole, integrated economy: agriculture, extraction, manufacturing, services, and infrastructure. From the tailpipe of all this activity comes pollution.

Krugman seems to have fallen for the pixie dust of “dematerializing” and “green growth” in the “Information Economy.” He may want to revisit Chapter 4 of The Wealth of Nations, where Adam Smith pointed out that agricultural surplus is what frees the hands for the division of labor. In Smith’s day that included the likes of candle-making and pin manufacturing. Today it includes everything from auto-making to information processing, but the fundamentals haven’t changed. No agricultural surplus, no economic growth. And agriculture is hardly a low-energy sector.

Adam Smith was among the great, classical economists who readily recognized limits to growth, all the way until at least John Stuart Mill. After that and throughout the 20th century, things got murky for economists as they turned increasingly to microeconomics, losing the forest for the trees. Mr. Krugman appears to be yet another victim of the “neoclassical” evolution of economics. Look to him for insightful opinions on banking regulations, fiscal politics, and other such topics that fit naturally under the rubric of an economics columnist. These are his babies, but beware the bathwater. Take his opinion on limits to growth at your peril, and that of your grandkids.

Three Limits to Growth

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyAs production (real GDP) grows, its marginal utility declines, because we satisfy our most important needs first. Likewise, the marginal disutilitiy inflicted by growth increases, because as the economy expands into the ecosphere we sacrifice our least important ecological services first (to the extent we know them). These rising costs and declining benefits of growth at the margin are depicted in the diagram below.

3 Limits Graph

From the diagram we can distinguish three concepts of limits to growth.

1. The “futility limit” occurs when marginal utility of production falls to zero. Even with no cost of production, there is a limit to how much we can consume and still enjoy it. There is a limit to how many goods we can enjoy in a given time period, as well as a limit to our stomachs and to the sensory capacity of our nervous systems. In a world with considerable poverty, and in which the poor observe the rich apparently still enjoying their extra wealth, this futility limit is thought to be far away, not only for the poor, but for everyone. By its “non satiety” postulate, neoclassical economics formally denies the concept of the futility limit. However, studies showing that beyond a threshold self-evaluated happiness (total utility) ceases to increase with GDP, strengthen the relevance of the futility limit.

2. The “ecological catastrophe limit” is represented by a sharp increase to the vertical of the marginal cost curve. Some human activity, or novel combination of activities, may induce a chain reaction, or tipping point, and collapse our ecological niche. The leading candidate for the catastrophe limit at present is runaway climate change induced by greenhouse gasses emitted in pursuit of economic growth. Where along the horizontal axis it might occur is uncertain. I should note that the assumption of a continuously and smoothly increasing marginal cost (disutility) curve is quite optimistic. Given our limited understanding of how the ecosystem functions, we cannot be sure that we have correctly sequenced our growth-imposed sacrifices of ecological services from least to most important. In making way for growth, we may ignorantly sacrifice a vital ecosystem service ahead of a trivial one. Thus the marginal cost curve might in reality zig-zag up and down discontinuously, making it difficult to separate the catastrophe limit from the third and most important limit, namely the economic limit.

3. The “economic limit” is defined by marginal cost equal to marginal benefit and the consequent maximization of net benefit. The good thing about the economic limit is that it would appear to be the first limit encountered. It certainly occurs before the futility limit, and likely before the catastrophe limit, although as just noted that is uncertain. At worst the catastrophe limit might coincide with and discontinuously determine the economic limit. Therefore it is very important to estimate the risks of catastrophe and include them as costs counted in the disutility curve, as far as possible.

From the graph it is evident that increasing production and consumption is rightly called economic growth only up to the economic limit. Beyond that point it becomes uneconomic growth because it increases costs by more than benefits, making us poorer, not richer. Unfortunately it seems that we perversely continue to call it economic growth! Indeed, you will not find the term “uneconomic growth” in any textbook in macroeconomics. Any increase in real GDP is called “economic growth” even if it increases costs faster than benefits.

Earth -

The macro-economy is not the Whole, but rather Part of the finite Whole. Photo Credit: Beth Scupham

Economists will note that the logic just employed is familiar in microeconomics—marginal cost equal to marginal benefit defines the optimal size of a microeconomic unit, be it a firm or household. That logic is not usually applied to the macro-economy, however, because the latter is thought to be the Whole rather than a Part. When a Part expands into the finite Whole, it imposes an opportunity cost on other Parts that must shrink to make room for it. When the Whole itself expands, it is thought to impose no opportunity cost because it displaces nothing, presumably expanding into the void. But the macro-economy is not the Whole. It too is a Part, a part of the larger natural economy, the ecosphere, and its growth does inflict opportunity costs on the finite Whole that must be counted. Ignoring this fact leads many economists to believe that growth in GDP could never be uneconomic.

Standard economists might accept this diagram as a static picture, but argue that in a dynamic world technology will shift the marginal benefit curve upward and the marginal cost curve downward, moving their intersection (economic limit) ever to the right, so that continual growth remains both desirable and possible. However, the macroeconomic curve-shifters need to remember three things. First, the physically growing macro-economy is still limited by its displacement of the finite ecosphere, and by the entropic nature of its maintenance throughput. Second, the timing of new technology is uncertain. The expected technology may not be invented or come on line until after we have passed the economic limit. Do we then endure uneconomic growth while waiting and hoping for the curves to shift? Third, let us remember that the curves can also shift in the wrong directions, moving the economic limit back to the left. Did the technological advances of tetraethyl lead and chlorofluorocarbons shift the cost curve down or up? How about nuclear power? Adopting a steady state economy allows us to avoid being shoved past the economic limit. We could take our time to evaluate new technology rather than letting it blindly push growth that may well be uneconomic. And the steady state gives us some insurance against the risks of ecological catastrophe that increase with growthism and technological impatience.

What to Do When You Suspect We’re Headed for Collapse

by Rob Dietz

Dietz_Author_PhotoIf you’ve been paying attention to the environmental news, then you know people are pummeling the planet. Because of the way we run the economy, with continuously growing population and consumption, we are destabilizing the climate, depleting topsoil, drawing down aquifers, acidifying the oceans, and driving species to extinction. Even as we impoverish the Earth’s ecosystems, billions of us struggle daily to find enough food for a decent dinner.  In this age of worldwide environmental and social turmoil, it’s natural to want to help. It’s also natural to wonder how you can possibly make a difference. These troubled times prompt each of us to ask a simple, but absolutely critical question: “What should I do?”

Before tackling what to do, let’s get something out of the way — what not to do:

  • Deny the severity of the problems. Suppose you go swimming along a beach and notice an agitated 20-foot-long great white shark swimming directly below you. No matter how much you refuse to acknowledge its existence, the shark will still be there, cruising along and considering whether you’d make a satisfying snack. You are more likely to survive if you assess your situation accurately and react to your new reality. (The chances of actually meeting a great white shark are slim because of overexploitation — just like humanity’s relationship with so many species, but that’s another story).
  • Refuse to take responsibility. Too many people deny not only the severity of the problems, but even the very existence of the problems. A disconcerting number of climate change denialists (perhaps better termed de-nihilists) live in virtual bomb shelters they constructed to avoid having to confront reality. It’s up to the rest of us — those who live in the real world and understand the severity of humanity’s plight — to take responsibility. We have to move with purpose and we have to move now.
  • Stick with the status quo. As environmental scientists continue to overload us with sobering findings, the easiest thing to do is to keep walking the business-as-usual path. There’s a certain solace to having a “normal” career, carrying on without making sacrifices or changing behavior in ways that may cause difficulty and even pain. As social creatures, we are pre-programmed to conform to the dominant culture. But the difficulty of taking a countercultural path pales in comparison to the chronic difficulties you’ll experience if your way of life contradicts your core beliefs.
  • Leave it to a higher power. Calling on a spiritual or technological force to save the day offers a soothing strategy for escaping from our environmental and social traps, but it’s also an unconscionably irresponsible strategy. People have good reasons to believe God or Google can deliver some amount of help, but that doesn’t absolve us from doing our part. We got ourselves into this mess — we must look to ourselves to find a way out.

Back to the central question: “What should I do?” Like a flock of vultures, the problems circle ominously overhead. The solutions are more like songbirds; they hide in branches and thickets, but they’re there. Despite their presence all around us, it’s still hard to spot proper solutions. It would be a huge relief to have one simple method for scuttling the vultures, but it just doesn’t exist. Solutions come with a certain degree of complexity (e.g., multiple partial solutions that are related to one another). To begin piecing together your answer to “What should I do,” then, it’s helpful to divide actions into three categories: (1) learn something, (2) say something, and (3) do something.

Learn Something

Seek out colleagues who also recognize the problems, but especially people working on creative solutions. I have found myself in the most amazing, life-enriching company while trying to learn more about how to build a sustainable and fair economy. Listing the scholars and leaders who have taught me how to think in systems and see the world through an ecological lens seems like an ill-advised exercise; I know I would omit someone, and I would feel like a name dropper. But when I think about people I’ve met on my quest to learn something, I feel so fortunate (here’s a short list of heroic “Bills”: Bill McKibben, Bill Rees, Bill Ryerson, and Bill Twist).  I’m thankful to all my colleagues, even those not named Bill!

The upshot: you don’t have to slog your way through boring tomes in the dusty corners of the library. On the contrary, you can engage with some of the most compassionate and insightful people on the planet, just as long as you share their desire to help, and you commit to learning something.

Say Something

"Keep Consuming" Poster by Adbusters

As the writers and artists at Adbusters effectively demonstrate, there are always opportunities to speak up and ask, “Why?”

Saying something (at least saying something intelligent) is tougher than learning something, especially for us introverts. My method of saying something consists mostly of writing. I co-wrote a book. I wrote articles (for example, this one in USA Today). I wrote Daly News essays. It’s easier for me to say something clear with a pen or keyboard than with my vocal chords (although I occasionally work up the courage to stand in front of a live audience and pass along what I’ve learned).

If you keep your eyes, ears, and heart open, you’ll find opportunities to say something, and it doesn’t have to be on some grand stage. If you’re a student, ask your professors and classmates probing questions:

Why does the economy have to keep growing? How much consumption is enough for a person, a community, or a society? What are the ultimate goals of our economy?

If you read news reports, write comments and send letters to the editor. A continuous procession of articles in praise of continuous economic growth marches across the front pages of mainstream media sources, providing ample opportunities to respond.

If you participate in a book club, try Enough Is Enough or something similar. Where my coauthor, Dan O’Neill, lives in Leeds, UK, a dedicated group of activists is strategizing how to build the kind of economy described in the book. The same thing has happened where I live in Corvallis, Oregon, and we’ve heard about other groups forming in Bermuda and Wisconsin. Changes begin with the simple act of discussing and sharing ideas. We can all engage our families and friends — you never know what positive events will emerges from your conversations.

Do Something

Doing something represents another step up in commitment. In choosing what to do, the most important point is to make your behavior match your knowledge and values. For example, you can reduce consumption, especially fossil fuel. You can engage in acts of protest. You can give your time and money to organizations that are championing causes dear to you. I have chosen to live with my family in an aspiring ecovillage. We do our best to support the local economy and disengage from the unsustainable, cost-externalizing, globalized economy. We ride bikes. We make music. The idea is to spend time fostering needed changes and have fun doing it.

It’s in that spirit that I embark on my next career adventure. I’ve said enough for the moment as the editor of the Daly News. To understand the motive behind my move, consider this quote from Buckminster Fuller:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

I am excited to be helping Farmland LP build a better agricultural model. We are out to prove that organic, ecologically sound farming practices outperform the outdated model we have been saddled with. The old model, based on 19th- and 20th-century ideas of industrial production, offers no future. In the new model, we manage farmland as an ecosystem — not a mine from which we extract and deplete resources. Farmland LP, founded by Jason Bradford and Craig Wichner, is doing something simple, elegant, and brilliant. The company raises money to buy conventional farmland and convert it to organic. The point is to bolster regional food systems, improve environmental conditions, create meaningful jobs, and provide investors with a good place to put their money. In a sense, we are performing an aikido move. We’re using the momentum of current financial and business systems to create a better way of managing landscapes and providing sustenance. I’m proud to play a role.

I’m also proud of my work on the Daly News. I’ve done my best to move the conversation along, and I look forward to learning more as CASSE continues to curate this forum. I’m engaged in a lifelong journey of learning something, saying something, and doing something. I hope you are too and that you’re bringing friends along. It’s not easy, but you’ll never regret doing what needs to be done. Onward!

Who’s Going to Lead the Way to a Sustainable Economy?

by Rob Dietz

Dietz_Author_PhotoIn a snarky moment, the late economist Kenneth Boulding said, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” Unfortunately madmen and delusional economists seem to be running the show. That’s why it’s so refreshing to meet someone who can see through the illusion of perpetual growth. It’s especially refreshing when that someone is in the early stages of a promising career — after all, today’s youth will be in charge of the transition to a sustainable economy (thank goodness, since they’re almost guaranteed to achieve a better track record for sustainability than their parents’ generation).

William Niancen Miao is not the sharpest knife in the drawer; he’s the sharpest knife in the whole kitchen, maybe all the kitchens within a fifty-mile radius. As a Fulbright Scholar studying industrial environmental management at Yale, he is synthesizing lessons from economics, legal studies, public policy, and the natural sciences into a solid understanding of what makes a sustainable business and a sustainable economy. His studies are surely shaping his big-picture view, but two other factors have also contributed: his history of worldly experience and his willingness to go against the grain.

Miao was born in 1990 and spent most of his youth in Shenzhen, a Hong Kong neighbor that was in the midst of a startling transformation from a fishing village to a concrete maze of skyscrapers. According to Miao, Shenzhen was built up in preparation for the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese. He says, “The Chinese government made it a special economic development zone. Hills and mountains were converted to quarries. The surrounding areas became factories.” The river that divides Shenzhen and Hong Kong got dirtier and smellier, and air quality declined to the point that blue became an uncommon color for the sky. After living under deteriorating environmental conditions and expanding stress from crowding and competition, Miao’s family made the decision to emigrate to New Zealand at the time he was starting high school.

The contrast between the lifestyles in New Zealand and China was obvious. Even though he had to learn a new language and culture, the pace of life slowed after the move. Miao de-emphasized his rigorous study of math and science, and took up art, music, and social studies. He found time to explore the beaches and beautiful landscapes of his adopted country. Miao says, “I was a very hard worker when I lived in China, but I became a more well-rounded person in New Zealand.”

Miao enrolled at the University of Auckland where he considered majoring in economics, but decided to specialize in chemical engineering. From his point of view, chemical engineering is more grounded in the real world, whereas economics resides in the theoretical realm (mainstream economic beliefs about the inevitability of continuous growth are especially theoretical). He also believed that a degree in chemical engineering would provide more job opportunities by outfitting him with a unique skill set.

Beat-up Shell Oil Can

Young people entering the workforce have better options than the antiquated fossil-fueled economy.

He was right about the job opportunities. At the end of his third year, he landed an internship at Shell Oil. By this time he was becoming increasingly aware of the principles of sustainability and green chemistry, and in his time at Shell, he realized his values didn’t mesh well with the company’s mission. Miao had been assigned to help with an offshore oil and gas project, and given the climate crisis, he questioned why he was even doing it. At the same time, he noticed that as supervisors climbed higher in the corporate hierarchy, they became more and more bound to Shell’s mission. They didn’t seem to think beyond production and profits, or consider the negative impacts of Shell’s activities. He asked himself, “Do I want to be like one of these folks?” The “no” answer brought another question to mind: “How can I do something greener, something broader?”

Miao knew he could get a six-figure salary if he took a standard chemical engineering job after graduation. That’s quite an enticement, but he concluded, “It’s more important to do what I actually want to do.” The only trouble: he wasn’t sure what that ought to be! Luck intervened. As a volunteer guide at a bird sanctuary (perhaps also a sanctuary for Miao himself from the Shell experience), he regularly hobnobbed with tourists. One such tourist was a professor who suggested that he look into the field of industrial ecology. That suggestion started Miao on another worldly adventure — this time to his current station at Yale.

He is learning to view industrial facilities and economic processes through an ecological lens. His combination of ecological understanding, grounding in the physical and chemical sciences, and love of the natural world (not to mention his work ethic) give him a unique potential to be an agent of change — to fix the broken parts of our industrial and economic systems. He wants to help firms achieve true systems thinking so that sustainability underpins every decision instead of being tacked on merely to create a better image or provide cost savings.

It takes sensitivity to recognize social and environmental problems. It takes insight to understand the systems from which those problems emerge. It takes integrity to align actions with values in an effort to change the systems. It takes courage to confront the mainstream point of view. And it takes sacrifice to put aside comfort and convenience to strive for something more elusive. Doesn’t it make you smile to know that students like William Miao are on such an honorable path?

Climate Change: The Wrong Top Priority for Environmentalists and Conservation Professionals

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechYou read that headline right, so let’s start with a disclaimer: Climate change is one of the biggest threats of the 21st century. Only idiots, ignorami, and certain categories of the insane dismiss the abundant science pointing to climate change, its causes, and its ongoing and future effects.

To stave off a pack of strawman-hungry wolves, let’s double down on the disclaiming: Climate change is an issue that warrants substantial attention. The crux of the matter is how much to prioritize it. Priorities have to be balanced, and the current balance is way out of kilter.

Environmental organizations and conservation agencies took a big gamble by putting all their beans in the top-priority pot. Yes, the perils of climate change are profound. And it’s true that planning for climate change is politically feasible, finally. The level of acceptance is “good enough for gubment work,” in the case of state and federal agencies. The same can be said for coffee-table conservation outfits like the National Wildlife Federation. Public acceptance of climate change is high enough to “work it.” Budgets can be built around climate change. Funding can be found and grants can be grabbed without a lot of political savvy or guts. Everybody can get credit for trying to save the world without having to deal with the harsh realities of what that really takes.

Some legitimate credit belongs to those who thought prioritizing climate change might unify an environmental conservation community that has long divided its efforts among such issues as clean air, clean water, fish and wildlife conservation, and wilderness preservation. The “envirocons,” to loosely lump all the environmental and conservation activists and professionals, have seldom reached critical mass to make a substantial difference in domestic policy. Some think climate change will rewrite the calculus of environmental politics by providing a unified front issue.

So what exactly is wrong with making climate change the top priority? First, although the political correctness of climate change is good enough for gubment work — that is, muddling around in the bureaucracy — it’s nowhere near high enough for effective law-making, and may never be. That’s because climate change is two degrees removed from the known reality of too many Americans. It’s not like the simple problem of overhunting during the early 20th century, when the passenger pigeon went extinct. Everybody saw it, either directly or in the papers. Laws were passed and the problem was solved, at least for the remaining species.

The next major conservation problem of the 20th century was habitat loss. Again it was easy to see: the bulldozers came and the wetlands were drained, forests were cleared, prairies were plowed, etc. The ducks and geese, most noticeably, disappeared from vast areas. Hunters (a much more prominent segment of society at the time), birdwatchers, and nature lovers in general got mad and lots of others were concerned. Laws were passed to keep the bulldozers out of the wetlands. The problem was solved, at least for the remaining wetlands, and to the extent the laws were upheld.

Climate change is different, and how. You might see its effects and sense it happening, but you don’t see climate change itself. And no matter how much you think you know about climate change, it requires dealing with a lot of uncertainty. You may have seen a hurricane, but was it caused by climate change? Maybe? To what degree? Prove it.

Even for those who can drink uncertainty with a fire hose, climate change requires connecting some challenging dots. It’s at least a two-step dance with an unwelcome partner. Step one is acknowledging that the climate is changing, and changing more rapidly than it normally might, whatever “normally” should mean. Just enough folks have taken this first step to put climate change on the political map.

But then comes step two, the connection of this abnormal pace of climate change to human economic activity. Now you’re messin’ with some minds. For starters, there are those who simply have a difficult time understanding the concepts, and don’t feel like making the effort to begin with. While the greenhouse gas effect is simple enough, and greenhouse gases readily identified, the combinations and permutations of causes and effects are complicated enough to lose readers by the score. Not everyone finds this stuff interesting, either. Americans love NASCAR and the Super Bowl, and find their news-hour attention riveted to mass shootings at home, terrorist activities overseas, and the latest scandal wherever. Who’s got time to read about emissions scenarios and climate modeling?

Then you’ve got the “religious wrong” preaching from evangelical pulpits that puny little man — proverbial dust in the wind — could never have an effect on God’s own climate. (Why only those godless liberals could offend God with such hubris!) We’re not talking about a handful of kooks here; the collective anti-science, anti-sustainability, holier-than-thou congregation is big enough to keep mean-spirited know-it-alls like Rush Limbaugh in business.

Then you have the millions who’ve been brainwashed into thinking that there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment. They’re a slightly more “sophisticated” crowd and more left-leaning than right. They haven’t been snowed by some pass-the-plate preacher at the big-box church, but by secular Big Money itself. Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and their parades of politicians have been selling the public a bill of goods for decades. Starting no later than with Ronald Reagan, economic growth was supposed to be unlimited, and if we really wanted to protect the environment, or the climate, all we needed to do was grow the economy. That way we’d have enough money to throw at the problem.

This cultural landscape of very odd bedfellows is like a minefield separating climate change talk from action. (And then, if we make it through the minefield, what action do we take?)

And what about all the regular old environmental issues we felt were so urgent before we prioritized climate change? Like clean air and water, wildlife conservation, wilderness preservation, soil conservation, invasive species, Superfund, the ozone layer, green space, threatened and endangered species, environmental quality and ecological integrity at large? We were already scrambling for scraps of funding for these issues, and now the collective scraps have been taken away to feed all the climate change research, modeling, planning, and a heavy load of education and outreach.

So then what should we prioritize to unify the envirocons and save the world? It should be obvious. The natural progression from market hunting to habitat loss was also a progression from a microeconomic issue to a meta-economic issue. The next stage in this progression is to the macroeconomic issue of economic growth. As the bumper sticker says, “Growing the economy is shrinking the planet.”

This isn’t the article to go into detail on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. Numerous authors have described that conflict in impeccable detail. Probably one paragraph is in order, though…

Economic growth means a lot more than all the good things we hear about it in the news. It’s not a gravy train or a silver bullet. To put it in dispassionate terms, economic growth means increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. Economic growth means a growing population and/or growing per capita consumption (aka “affluence”). It means growing GDP. It means environmental impact. It’s the underlying, overarching, all-encompassing cause behind virtually every environmental problem you can think of, including climate change in a fossil-fueled economy. Meanwhile society falls asleep to the tune of “green-growth” lullabies. The notion of replacing those powerful hydrocarbons with “clean” fuels to support ever-growing GDP is a dream, alright. It’s the kind of dream that turns into a nightmare as the realization hits that pulling out all the stops for economic growth is a handcart to hell.

Climate change is harder spot than the troubles of an overgrown economy.

It’s tough to spot the elevated levels of greenhouse gases on the left; it’s easier to spot the trouble with runaway growth on the right.

With one paragraph on the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, the common sense should be engaged. Common sense can probably give you an inkling of the corruption of economics, too, and why economists on Wall Street and in the Fed tell you only about the benefits of economic growth without mentioning the costs, despite the fact that the costs are now exceeding the benefits for most Americans — and for virtually all their grandkids.

With the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection left to your common sense or further reading elsewhere, what’s left of this article should focus our attention on the properties of economic growth as a viable issue for government agencies as well as for NGO priorities and eventually public policy. At least five key properties separate economic growth from climate change.

First, just like market hunting and habitat loss — and unlike climate change — economic growth is readily observable. Look around you and wherever you see an environmental problem, note the cause. It’s not a mystery. It’s “human activity” as some like to say, but even that is an inadequate phrase, lacking policy implications. Humans and their activities should not be made to sound like a blight on the planet. It’s not spiritual activity, or family activity, or civic activity that threatens our water supplies, endangers other species, and changes our climate. To be precise, it’s human economic activity: the energy sector, agriculture, natural resource extraction, manufacturing, services. All the sectors — every single one of them in an integrated economy — plus all the infrastructure (roads, power lines, dams, etc.), plus the byproducts (pollutants including greenhouse gases) and incidental effects including climate change.

Second, economic growth can serve as an even better unifying front issue than climate change. Climate change doesn’t cause all other environmental problems or the vast majority of conservation challenges. Economic growth does. All those issues faced by envirocons prior to climate change were being caused by an increasing population and its economic activities. Now we can add climate change to that list of the effects of a constantly growing human economy. Fix the growth problem, and you go a long way toward fixing the climate change problem. Mountain-top removal and Keystone pipelines wouldn’t be so tempting if we weren’t hell-bent on GDP growth.

Third, economic growth is already entrenched in the American lexicon. The phrase itself elicits no immediate backlash from the pulpit, Wall Street, or conservative radio shows and politicians. Economic growth is expected to be in the news every day. It’s a welcome topic. Now when the dialog starts, with the rest of the story about the problems caused by economic growth, debate will begin of course. But that’s exactly what we need. At least economic growth is not a non-starter, as climate change is in many circles.

Fourth, when it comes to really doing something, economic growth can be dealt with immediately at a fully developed policy table. It’s not like climate change where plenty of well-intentioned effort has manufactured almost no policy machinery. No new conventions or treaties are needed for real effects on the rate of economic growth. At the economic policy table, fiscal, monetary, and trade policy is already being crafted, but always in pursuit of growth. This policy table is set and waiting for chairs to be occupied by experts better-informed than the usual lineup of Chicago School economists.

The need for well-rounded expertise at the economic policy table points to an immediate role for environmental bureaucrats and political appointees at the highest levels. For every economist from the Council of Economic Advisors, there should be an EPA administrator or conservation agency director explaining the costs of further growth. We need a long-overdue and ongoing discussion about the conflict between economic growth and: 1) environmental protection, 2) economic sustainability, 3) national security, and 4) international stability. Then lawmakers and presidents can make informed decisions about balancing economic and other goals. Hopefully in the coming decades we’ll be pursuing the establishment of a sustainable, steady state economy rather than unsustainable and increasingly destructive economic growth.

Fifth, addressing the threat of economic growth is a far more practical alternative than the wishful thinking about climate change action. This is easy to understand, but only when we remember that practicality is not a concept reserved for politics. Just because the acceptance of climate change is good enough for gubment work doesn’t make climate change a practical matter for spending taxpayer money or NGO dues on. Prioritizing climate change is like chopping at kudzu leaves instead of the roots. It’s not going to do a significant bit of good as long as the overriding policy goal is economic growth.

In short, climate change is the wrong issue for environmentalists and conservation professionals to collectively prioritize above all others. While climate change is a legitimate threat, prioritizing climate change was driven largely by (relative) political convenience and the constant jockeying for agency funding, NGO membership dues, and foundation grants. Meanwhile the failure to prioritize economic growth, the mother of 21st century threats, is driven by shallow political thinking and the personal interests of “leaders” getting paid the big bucks at the heads of conservation agencies and environmental NGOs.

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