The Hidden Costs of Cheater Economics on Human Health & the Future of Life on Earth

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderIn a true cost steady state economy, the real costs of goods and services would not be disguised, hidden, or kept off the accounting ledger. The former head of Friends of the Earth England, Tony Juniper, makes a significant contribution to the discussion of a true cost economy in his new book What Has Nature Ever Done For US? How Money Really Does Grow on Trees.

Cheater economics enables polluting products to be sold cheaper than many clean products. Cheater economics includes subsidies for fossil fuels, pesticides, and toxic chemicals. Cheater economics tolerates pollution externalities, as economists have noted. For example, many damages caused by air pollution from coal-fired power plants are not incorporated into the price of coal but simply borne by the victims. The act of mountain top mining eliminates forests and streams while air pollution from burning coal results in loss of crops, damage to buildings, health problems, and mercury contamination of fisheries, etc.

Here is a sample of the astonishing set of ecological costs stemming from economic activities that damage or rearrange ecosystems that are presented in What Has Nature Ever Done For US?

Vultures in India

Photo Credit:  Nagarjun Kandukuru

Perching vulture in India. Photo Credit: Nagarjun Kandukuru

India has almost lost its total population of 40 million vultures as a result of anti-inflammatory drugs injected into cattle and water buffalo. The vultures consumed the carcasses of these and other dead creatures and accumulated a fatal dosage. Now 12 million tonnes of animal flesh that vultures consumed annually is left rotting, fed upon by growing packs of dogs that have caused a massive outbreak of rabies among the human population. The annual medical costs exceed $30 billion as a result of the demise of the vulture population, which had previously provided free of charge essential garbage/carrion collection services.

Pollinators of Human Food Crops

About two thirds of the world’s food crops require animal pollination and one trillion dollars of the $3 trillion annual sales of agricultural products are dependent on animal pollinators such as honey bees and bumblebees. Certain pesticides are killing off these crucial pollinators. In the 1980s, extensive use of pesticides in part of Sichuan, China, eliminated the bee pollinators. Today in this region, about 40,000 people now have to pollinate apple and pear trees by hand.

The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that in 146 countries, 90% of the food supply is provided by 100 crops. What is significant is that 71 of these 100 crops are pollinated primarily by wild bees. These crops include squashes, cherries, plums, cucumbers, strawberries, and pears.

Destruction of Ocean Fisheries via Subsidies

Ocean fisheries contribute $274 billion for global GDP but various countries provide $16 billion in subsidizing fishery harvesting practices that are highly damaging to fish stocks: i.e., the equivalent of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Photo Credit: Jim Winstead

Mangrove in Thailand. Photo Credit: Jim Winstead

Mangrove Forest Loss & Coastal Flooding

One square kilometer of mangrove forest is worth between $200,000 and $900,000 annually. Destruction of coastal mangrove forests, as occurs with Asian shrimp farms, eliminates the storm protection barrier that is increasingly important in the face of sea level rise.

High Health Care Costs as Result of Destroying Natural Areas

To deal with the poor health of people in the polluted Gateshead area in Northeast England, a group of British public agencies in 2004 initiated a program of walks in a 360 hectare mixed forest zone. Tony Juniper reports that these walks were very effective in improving patients’ health and were far superior to the alternative of exercise in a gymnasium.

A growing body of evidence points to the health benefits from interactions with nature. Dr. William Bird, a British doctor, ran a diabetic clinic in the 1990s in Oxfordshire where he initiated a very successful program of health walks in natural areas. But the sad fact is that natural areas are declining in many urban areas. In Sheffield, England, the “roaming” range for children has declined over 5 generations from six miles when the great-grandparents were children to about 300 yards today for children. The health costs of destroying natural areas globally is simply a pollution externality for developers and extractors and is shoved off on the public.

Pharmaceuticals & the Loss of Tropical Rainforests

Experts estimate that between a quarter and a half of the $640 billion global pharmaceutical market is based on natural genetic diversity. Tropical rainforests contain a significant portion of the genetic diversity on earth, but despite the grave concerns about deforestation, an area the size of Germany or Montana was lost between 2000 and 2013.

To establish a true cost economy, we must get the ecological price right on products and services. The examples presented in Juniper’s book illustrate the extraordinarily large benefits provided by nature but neglected in today’s economic accounting. These compelling illustrations can be of great benefit in pushing toward a paradigm shift in current mainstream economic thinking. They are straightforward matter-of-fact descriptions of externalities that are undermining the life-support ecosystems of the Earth.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) should be requiring companies to disclose their pollution externalities annually so as to alert investors and the public to the true cost of their products. However, not only will a steady state economy depend on accounting for these costs and putting an end to cheater economics, but will also depend on changing our macroeconomic policy goal of continuous growth. Only then can we begin to stop the destruction of our planet and ensure our health and the environment are protected for generations to come.

Neoclassical Economist Recants Key Article of Faith

by Eric Zencey

Mark this down as minor good news: in Vermont, a neoclassical economist who has long served as a media “go-to guy” for commentary on economic matters appears to have recanted a key element of the neoclassical model. He didn’t put it in those terms, and the scope of his readership is rarely larger than his (and my) home state, but still, this counts as progress.

The element of the neoclassical model that has come under critical scrutiny in the Vermont press lately is the notion that GDP — a measure of the dollar value of all goods and services produced by the economy — is a practical and useful measure of economic well-being. It’s not hard to see why GDP is being re-thought: last month tropical storm Irene dumped tropical-rainforest quantities of water on the state in just a few hours, leading to major damage from unprecedented flooding. Rivers filled their flood plains and kept rising, sweeping away roads, bridges, and houses, ruining homes, lives, farms, and communities. The publicly owned infrastructure is being put back with great speed and efficiency (and should be in good shape for the upcoming foliage season, so if you’ve planned a visit don’t think that you need to cancel). That repair work is the source of some economic confusion. The construction industry had been slumping; now workers are busy, doing productive things, getting paid. Is all this public works effort a net benefit to the economy, or not?

GDP says yes, absolutely. Common sense — and steady-state economic theory — says no.

GDP smiles on this scene.

GDP gets it wrong because it fails to take into account the ongoing benefit we derive from the services of physical wealth that’s already in place — public and private infrastructure that is paid for and in use. My car is a capital investment that provides me with transportation services; if I own it, the only aspect of its delivery of services that shows up in GDP comes from the spending I do on operating costs and maintenance. And perversely, if gas prices go up so does GDP — telling us that because there’s more spending, the economy must be delivering more economic benefit. If I make the switch to renting a car rather than owning it, the rental fee shows up as a monetary transaction and gets counted in GDP — though there’s no net increase in the quantity of services I’m getting. Those services count in GDP only if I pay for them incrementally and continually (and don’t get an equity stake in my vehicle).

The same miscounting happens with the services provided by (non-rental) housing, roads, bridges, etc.: the ongoing benefit is simply not counted. GDP is an indicator for amnesiacs. It has no memory, no room to allow that the economy has been operating for quite a while and has produced forms of durable wealth — things like buildings and bridges and roads and communications systems — that continue to be useful long after they’ve been paid for.

So, when disaster leads to major new spending, a by-the-book accounting has to say: GDP is up, so we must be better off. The downside — the loss of wealth (and the loss of services derived from that wealth) can’t show up in the books because it wasn’t counted in the first place. Disaster looks to be good for business, good for the economy, good for us; within the limits of neoclassical concepts, tools, and analysis, when we repair storm damage the result is “net positive.”

Will Vermont end up net positive in economic benefits as it repairs the damage from Irene? There are additional complexities when we ask such a question about a particular location or region, and the answer is “it depends.” The net economic effect of damage and repair for any one location depends in part on where the funding comes from — whether it is raised within or outside the economy being considered. (At the macro level, there is no “outside,” and the answer is no.) If Vermont’s repairs are paid for with money from outside the state — from the Federal government, say, through FEMA grants — disaster repair might or might not have a net positive effect in the state; it may or may not exceed the loss of wealth from the disaster. If there is a net positive effect, the surplus comes either from deficit spending by the central government, or through direct transfer of resources (through Federal taxes) from other states. If it’s a transfer, it represents loss of purchasing power and economic activity in the areas from which the money is transferred: there’s been no net gain in the system, just a shift in who benefits and who pays. If the funding comes from deficit spending, the stimulus may be just what’s needed to put people back to work, but there is still a shift: the transfer is inter-generational rather than geographic. Wealth creation that might have occurred later, benefiting a future generation, has been brought forward to benefit us.

This wouldn’t be a problem in an economic system on an infinite planet. In a world without resource constraints, deficit-financed investment can always increase the amount of production in the future, and the deficit can be repaid from that increase. Thus, on an infinite planet it would be possible for both the present and the future to benefit from our deficit spending today. But on our planet, with an economy built beyond the limits of what’s sustainable, expanding production today diminishes the wealth and well-being of people in the future. On a finite planet at maximum capacity, there’s no room to expand the economy’s ecological footprint without causing harms and losses, and economic growth today is a transfer of wealth and well-being from the future to the present.

Casting up GDP accounts, even when corrected this way, doesn’t begin to measure the personal and social costs of the damage — people’s loss of livelihoods and secure expectations, their loss of the personal effects that help define them and their familial and community relations, and sometimes — as when farmland is poisoned by toxins in floodwaters and herds and breeding stock are swept to their deaths — their loss of a known, satisfying way of life in a familiar landscape. When those softer, less quantifiable costs are included, it’s very hard to think that the catastrophe in Vermont had any sort of net positive benefit.

But economics as neoclassicists practice it slices off those less quantifiable aspects of well-being and looks at cold, hard cash. In those strictly monetary terms, disaster looks good for business, and more business looks good for Americans. That’s the flaw in GDP that one neoclassical economist has recanted in his latest appearance in our local media.

I interviewed this particular economist by phone in 2009, when I was putting together an op-ed piece on the shortcomings of GDP for the New York Times. When I asked the professor about the perverse way GDP tallied the results of Hurricane Katrina ($82 billion in property damage, so an $82 billion boost to GDP if all the damage were to be repaired), he defended GDP. “That figure is going to include a lot of improvements,” he said. “Those people are getting new cars, new carpets, new refrigerators.” Notice that this way of thinking gives a disciplinary seal of approval (“100% rational behavior”) to a very uneconomic, irrational exchange: you’d be crazy to pay the cost of complete destruction of your household in order to get incremental upgrades of some of the things it contains.

While it isn’t always possible to map theoretical insight directly from individual households to the larger household of planet earth, here I think we can. Because GDP doesn’t count the flow of services from existing household wealth as an economic benefit, GDP fails to treat destruction of that wealth as a cost item, and so it treats reconstruction of that household wealth as a net gain. Ditto when we look at the whole system: in the planetary household GDP fails to count ecosystem services as a benefit, and so fails to count ecosystem destruction as a cost item, and so makes continual economic growth look like a net gain. Because of our shoddy accounting, we’re destroying the ecosystems that support civilization, often to get nothing more than an incremental upgrade to the wealth we already have. At some point, we’ve got to admit that this is uneconomic, irrational: crazy.

This far the go-to economist didn’t go, at least not as he was quoted in the paper. But fixing our accounting system is a commonsense idea that subverts infinite planet thinking, and in what he did say the neoclassical economist showed that he had taken the first step on that path. He allowed that Tropical Storm Irene wasn’t an economic boon to Vermont, because “there’s a tremendous amount of wealth that’s destroyed, and that’s not a good thing.” Having recognized the existence of that already-built wealth, he should be ready to take the next (logical!) step: start measuring that wealth and start counting the services we derive from it as part of our economic benefit. That means getting beyond GDP, which focuses on the now, the moment, the instantaneous rate of change in our market-based economic activity.

Getting off of GDP and implementing an accounting system with a memory will prove to be the first step on a path to broader changes. If we take into account the services we derive from our considerable stock of built wealth, and also take into account the services we derive from our considerable-but-declining stock of natural wealth, we’re led by inexorable logic to re-evaluate the concept of economic growth. When we have a system of economic accounting that includes all costs and all benefits, it will be easier to see that much economic growth is uneconomic, because it costs more in degradation of ecosystem services and other costs than it brings in benefits. Once we get over GDP it will be easier to see that the only sane, sustainable economic doctrine is one that calls on us to live within our current solar income, a steady-state flow of matter and energy through the economy. By then this truth will have become self-evident: on a finite planet, we can’t grow the economy’s ecological footprint forever.

If, thanks to unprecedented storm damage, neoclassical economists are led to reject the valuations offered by GDP and follow their thinking to this conclusion, then unprecedented weather events like Irene may yet prove to have a net positive economic effect: they will have nudged economic theory onto the path to a sane, rational, sustainable, steady-state economy.

Ecosystem Services: The Traveling Salesman and the Trophic Conundrum

by Brian Czech

Some scholars make a living valuing natural capital and ecosystem services, with trips the world over pointing out the value of standing forests, free-flowing watersheds, coastal wetlands, and all those other “funds” of ecosystem services. Foreign governments, think tanks, and universities pay handsomely for such talks.  It’s a good gig for those who can settle for telling half a story.

Meanwhile the inconvenient truth languishes in obscurity. Our traveling scholars won’t be seen uttering the phrase “steady state economy,” at least not in public. They know it goes against the political tide, which is still coming in for economic growth. Grants go to those who don’t go against growth.

That’s why, after such scholars come through your town or country, you’re left to figure out the big picture on your own. By the time you realize that all the talk about ecosystem services and “green accounting” boils down to the need for a steady state economy, you’ll be left to do the heavy political lifting, too. The traveling scholar will be long gone; probably on another flight to a hefty honorarium.

Let’s get one thing straight: ecological microeconomics — deriving the value of ecosystem services — does have an important role to play in the quest for sustainability. But performed out of its macroeconomic context, all the talk of ecosystem service values is like the din of drums without the melody of a guitar. It’s hard to make sense of.

For the sake of all sustainable, I’d like to propose a new rule; namely, that no talks on valuing ecosystem services be given (especially for big bucks) without a healthy dose of ecological macroeconomics. Without explicitly pointing out the limits to economic growth and the need for a steady state economy, the speaker leaves the audience with a dangerous ambiguity. Suckers and scholars alike are led to believe they can save the world as long as they get the prices right for ecosystem services. Of course, some of the audience will “get it” — it being the need for a steady state economy — but too much ambiguity remains to turn the tide toward steady statesmanship.

This is no hypothetical matter. We see examples abounding. Take the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which recently adopted a resolution calling for reforming GDP, which is the indicator of economic growth. NWF fully recognizes that GDP is a poor indicator of human wellbeing because it doesn’t account for many things — such as wildlife conservation — that are important to humans. They recognize that growing GDP has amounted to declining biodiversity, among other things. That’s why it is quite logical to surmise that NWF gets the need for a steady state economy.

But no, NWF clarified that they only call for reforming GDP and not for a steady state economy. Apparently they think that, by getting all the prices right for ecosystem services, GDP will be wildlife-friendly and we can have economic growth and wildlife conservation ever after. (Actually, at least one of the NWF delegates who advanced the NWF resolution was motivated by steady state economics.  We know that because he’s a CASSE chapter director! For NWF executive leadership, however, apparently it’s all drums and no guitar.)

NWF would do well to consider Herman Daly’s metaphor of the plimsoll line, the marking on a ship that tells captain and crew when to stop adding cargo. Loading beyond the plimsoll line is so dangerous that it was outlawed. To the NWFs of the world, ecological macroeconomics has a message: when you’re loaded to the plimsoll line, it doesn’t matter if you add a green puppy or a gray pig — you’re sunk!

Failure to see the forest for the trees would be greatly alleviated if only our traveling salesmen of natural capital accounting were to couple the incomplete truth (micro) with the inconvenient truth (macro). I’ll make it easy for them by offering up the “trophic conundrum” model from my upcoming book, Supply Shock. The model illuminates the inconvenient truth that all the valuation exercises in the world won’t save us from the tradeoff between economic growth and environmental protection.

We see from the model that as the natural capital supply curve shifts inward (from S1 to S2), the price of natural capital and ecosystem services increases (from P1 to P2). That’s basic economics. What is not basic (conventional, neoclassical) economics, but rather ecological macroeconomics, is the trophic theory of money, which tells us that the supply curve shifts inward as an inevitable function of economic growth.  That’s because economic growth entails the transformation of natural capital into more goods and services, plus manmade capital and waste.

We can do all the green accounting in the world, but the only way to stabilize prices of natural capital and ecosystem services — the only way to achieve sustainability — is to establish a steady state economy with stable population and per capita consumption. Meanwhile the only way to establish a steady state economy is with more, and clear, articulation of this inconvenient truth. Otherwise, with nothing but ecological microeconomics, we’re just pricing to peddle. We’re not conserving, sustaining, or telling the whole truth.

National Wildlife Federation Adopts Key Element of Steady-State Thinking

by Eric Zencey

The National Wildlife Federation held its annual meeting near Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Friday, April 15. The meeting took a bold, firm step toward implementing a key feature of steady-state economic thinking: it passed a resolution calling on the President, Congress, state governors and state legislators to abandon gross domestic product (GDP) as the indicator that economic policy makers seek to maximize, and to develop and adopt instead a broader measurement of economic and ecological well-being.

The resolution passed unanimously, as delegates from 47 states and two overseas territories said “aye,” no one said “nay,” and the resolution was gaveled into force. I was there representing the Vermont Natural Resources Council, which had put the resolution on the agenda. The vote was a quiet moment in a large conference hall, with delegates shuffling papers as they sat at long tables facing the dais, each of us fronted by a miniature version of our state flag. This is what revolutions in political economy sometimes look like: quiet meetings in stuffy conference halls in which concerned citizens say, in unison, “Stop doing that and do this instead.”

In passing the resolution, the Federation lends its considerable support to an international movement that seeks to alter what we count as progress. That change—measuring the actual well-being delivered by the economy instead of the amount of money that changes hands each quarter—is crucial to establishing a sane, sustainable, steady state economy.

Every economics textbook warns that GDP is a poor measure of well-being, and yet by default it continues to be the indicator that economic policy seeks to maximize. GDP doesn’t measure well-being at all, but simply tries to tally the dollar value of final goods and services produced in the U.S. By design, it leaves out volunteer work and domestic production—the daycare you do at home doesn’t count, but if you commercialize the transaction by dropping your kids off at the daycare center, GDP goes up. Cooking, cleaning, maintenance, yard work, caring for aging parents—none of it counts if money doesn’t change hands. Neighborhoods, communities and households all benefit mightily from this kind of non-commercial production, and their replacement by commercial services often fails to bring the same level of satisfaction and well-being.

By design, GDP also leaves out ecosystem services; if you hang your laundry out to dry, the sun and wind do the job, but if you throw it in the dryer you use electricity, increase your carbon footprint, and give GDP a bit of a bump. Ecological economists identify a dozen categories of ecosystem services, including climate stability, recycling of nutrients, creation of soil fertility, maintenance of a library of genetic diversity, pollination, purification and transport of water by the solar-powered hydrological cycle, flood protection services of marshlands and forests, and so on. Ecosystem services count for nothing in GDP. If we don’t value them, they are easily ignored. Yet the loss of ecosystem services leads, eventually and inevitably, to the loss of civilization itself.

GDP also misreads our level of well-being by treating defensive and remedial expenditures as positive economic activity. Remedial: the $12 billion that British Petroleum alone has spent (so far) in its efforts to clean up the catastrophic oil release in the Gulf of Mexico counts as an increase in GDP, though the expenditure comes nowhere close to putting things back to their pre-Deepwater state. Defensive: if someone breaks into a neighbor’s house and you decide to buy a burglar alarm, GDP goes up—but you probably don’t feel as secure as you did before the break-in.

Economic growth brings us problems, and as we spend money to deal with those problems (e.g., trucking in water to replace the services of an aquifer contaminated by mountaintop-removal coal mining, adding treatment plants to purify drinking water fouled by chemical discharges, or turning up the air conditioning because smog and particulate matter make opening a window an undesirable option), GDP goes up. By some estimates, as much as one-quarter to one-third of our GDP consists of such expenditures.

If we’re ever to have a sustainable, steady state economy—an economy that operates on a sustainably sized flow of matter and energy, and which excretes outputs that can successfully be absorbed by the ecosystems of the planet—we need to start measuring what matters, and not mistake the commotion of money for the creation of well-being. Steady-state economics doesn’t mean that our quality of life will stagnate; we can have continual improvement in social and cultural well-being as we spend less on remediation and repair. Ecological economists call this development to distinguish it from footprint-enlarging growth. And this is the key to steady-state thinking—we have to stop growing our ecological footprint (which is already too large to be sustained) and begin budgeting our economy within the limits of what we can sustainably extract and emit. The National Wildlife Federation did not specifically sign on to the steady-state vision; but by calling for an accurate measurement of the costs of economic growth, it has officially joined us on a path that can lead nowhere else.

The resolution passed by the annual meeting reads, in part,

…be it resolved that the National Wildlife Federation urges the President, the Congress, and state Governors and legislatures to take immediate steps to redesign the use of the Gross Domestic Product as an indicator of economic well-being, and to take all necessary action to develop and implement a system of economic accounting that gives a more accurate measure of overall economic and ecological well-being; and be it further resolved that the new or modified system of national accounts should treat as cost or debit items the depletion of finite, non-renewable natural resources and the loss and degradation of ecosystem services, including the service of providing habitat for wildlife.

The Federation is, as the name implies, an umbrella organization that offers central administration and the strength of shared purpose to its affiliate organizations. It’s the largest environmental advocacy group in the nation, with affiliates in 47 states, several territories, and a total membership of 1.5 million members. The organization brings together hunters, anglers and sportsmen, on the one side, with hikers, backpackers, and birders on the other, with a good strong mix of environmentally aware citizens thrown in as well. It’s a broad coalition bound together by a shared understanding of the need to protect wildlife and wildlife habitat—ecosystems and their genetic diversity.

In its seventy-five year history, the NWF has fought and won a lot of battles, from the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 (which for the first time provided Federal funding for wildlife programs), through the 1944 invention of the concept of the environmental impact statement and its eventual adoption into law, and on through a leadership role in the major environmental legislation of the 1960’s and 1970’s: the Clean Water Act of 1963, the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969, the dramatically expanded Clean Water Act of 1970. The Federation is an active litigator, using these laws and others to block unwise economic activity and protect the nation’s ecosystems. It’s safe to say that without the Federation, many of the ecosystems of North America would be not just threatened but degraded to the point of collapse.

Begun by a group of outdoorsmen who saw their beloved wilderness areas, and the animals in them, being threatened by the encroachment of economic activities, the Federation has in its seventy-five year history broadened its approach. As a history of the Federation puts it, “While the NWF continues to champion threatened species, its work has evolved to embrace a multi-species, ecosystem approach.” (source: “What We Want is Action,” by Jessica Snyder Sachs in National Wildlife, February/March 2011, p. 27.) It also broadened its reach in another way: “we began seeing the patterns,” says former NWF counsel Patrick Parenteau, “and attacking the root causes of such problems.” (quoted by Sachs, p. 25.) The adoption of the economic indicators resolution is a continuation of this trend, reaching beyond symptoms to address the problem at its source.

The root cause of our environmental problems—our ecological crisis—is infinite planet economic theory, the rules and axioms of a discipline that tells us that it is possible to have infinite economic growth on a finite planet. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But neoclassical economists continue to believe this is possible because human ingenuity is a factor of production and, supposedly, it is infinitely powerful. You can get to that conclusion only if you ignore the laws of thermodynamics. Economic production is, at bottom and unalterably, a process that relies on physical inputs. No amount of human ingenuity will ever let us make something from nothing or nothing from something. No amount of ingenuity will let us create energy out of nothing or recycle it to use it again.

In the real world outside of infinite planet theory, our acts and works are constrained by physical law. Those laws tell us that increasing our matter-and-energy throughput has unavoidable consequences in the world. It damages ecosystems, leading to the loss of (sometimes irreplaceable) ecosystem services. We can’t count that loss as a cost unless we first value ecosystem services as a benefit and adopt an indicator other than GDP as the one we seek to maximize. With the passage of this resolution, the National Wildlife Federation commits to lending its considerable energies and expertise to that effort.