Tractor plowing a field

The Five Dumbest Things You’ll Hear About Sustainability

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechThis one’s about dumb, dumber, and dumbest, plus two intermediate levels for good measure. Ready for the inglorious countdown?

5. “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

Might as well say there’s no conflict between plowing a field and protecting the prairie, or logging the woods and protecting the forest, or mining copper and protecting the landscape. No conflict between plastic production and pure water, or paper production and pure air. No conflict between a gazillion cars and the air, water, and climate.

What the heck were the dummies thinkin’?

Maybe it would help if they thought about how the world looked before there was an economy. Or what the American West looked like as Lewis and Clark described it in 1805. Back when GDP was next to nothing. That’s when there was pristine air and water, forests tall and vast, bison in mind-numbing herds, wolves and grizzlies commonplace.

What happened to it all? Why? And does anything describe it better than growing GDP?

It’s hard to believe we’re only at #5!

4. In the information economy, we can dematerialize economic growth.

What did the dummies think all that information would be used for? Invisible inspiration? Immaterial mental massaging? Unmentioned appreciation of unplayed music?

And did they think such immaterial imaginaries would somehow be bought and sold in a free market, contributing to economic growth?

It doesn’t take more than common sense to realize what all that information is used for. If it’s going to contribute to economic growth, it’s going to be used for more competitive farming, logging, mining, paper-making, transportation, and all the other regular old sectors. Oh sure, it can be used for some lighter things too – there’s singing and dancing for example –but if it’s going to be relevant to economic growth, a substantial portion of the information must be used for agricultural and extractive activity.

Maybe common sense is a scarce commodity in the age of video games, derivatives, and e-stuff. Maybe some book-learning is in order, starting with some basic ecology and economics. Here’s a relevant tidbit: Due to the trophic structure of the human economy, economic growth requires increasing agricultural and extractive surplus at the base of the economy. It’s that surplus, and a very material surplus indeed, that frees the hands for the division of labor in the “information economy.”

3. “If the economy’s not growing, it’s dying.”

This one is less illuminating than a 1-watt lightbulb. Might as well say, “If it’s not speeding up, it’s stopping.” Or, “If it’s not getting louder, it’s no longer making noise.”

Tractor plowing a field

The tractor protects the prairie, just like economic growth protects the environment.

Or consider the human body. It’s highly relevant because all the human bodies combined constitute the producers and consumers of the macro-economy. Yet those bodies who insist on growing forever; they’re gonna die! And along the way they’ll causes shortages for the rest of us. The only chance of survival is to maintain that body — and the body economic — in a relatively steady state.

It may be true that some familiar institutions can’t co-exist with a steady state economy, such as the fractional reserve banking system. But that’s a problem with the banking system (a big problem), not a problem with the steady state economy, which is the only sustainable alternative in the long run. It’s not exactly rocket science: perpetual growth is unsustainable, perpetual degrowth is unsustainable. That leaves stability, or the steady state economy, as the sustainable alternative.

2. The wealthiest countries have the most environmental protection, which shows we need economic growth to protect the environment.

A common theme with dummies everywhere is linking a grain of truth with the validity of the entire field. For example, Sarah Palin says Russia is near Alaska. That is true. Therefore, says Dummy, she must be an expert in the field of foreign policy.

In this case, the field is neoclassical economics, where economists far removed from the land came up with a crazy construct called the “environmental Kuznets curve.” These economists acknowledge that, as the economy grows, it harms the environment. But then, they say, when enough growth occurs, society has the money to fix the environment!

Next they’ll be telling us the Biggest Loser needs more food to go on a diet.

The fact of the matter is that we have to get serious about going on an economic diet. We don’t need more economic fat to do it; we need only willpower and the common sense to realize that pushing for evermore economic growth is the same as pushing the planet to the brink of disaster. And that includes economic disaster.

Almost to the Dumbest

So we’ve covered dumb and dumber; almost to the dumbest. And there’s been a common theme: a lack of awareness of basic ecology and economics, leaving dummies susceptible to pipe dreams and pro-growth salesmanship. Ready to echo what most pleases Big Money: “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!”

That’s why it may surprise readers to find that the dumbest thing you’ll hear about sustainability comes from an entirely different corner. This is the one spoken by select, educated dummies who may have scientific background to understand the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, but are oblivious to the sociology of sustainability. They are the quintessential example of the Donald Rumsfeld lament, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

Drumroll please…

1. “Everybody knows there’s a conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.”

This one is so dumb you may not have even heard it before. It’s a statement uttered by those who think what they know — in this case about the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection — should be self-evident to others. It’s a lazy sort of dumbness based on ignorance of the social facts.

Just because something should be the case doesn’t make it so. Everybody should know there’s a conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, yes. But if you know anything about sustainability, you’re aware of a massive literature describing how neoclassical economics, as played by “win-win” politicians, has led the public astray from common sense. Americans, especially, are all too programmed to believe, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!” Nationwide public opinion surveys have provided evidence for this win-win rhetoric seeping into the American mind.

So when you hear somebody say, “Everybody knows there’s a conflict between economic growth and environmental protection,” you know something is wrong. It could be sheer ignorance, or it could be something worse. There are highly paid yes-men and women in government, business, the non-profit sector, and even academia who refuse to raise a finger to educate the public on the perils of economic growth. They’re afraid of the personal consequences of telling the truth. But they make up plenty of excuses. They’ll say we don’t need to raise awareness of the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, because “Everybody knows it.”

So you might object, “When they say such a thing, maybe they’re just being sneaky and cynical, not necessarily dumb per se.”

Ironically enough, only the dummy who says such a thing could actually know.

China’s Infinite-Growth Haze

by Eric Zencey

Eric_ZenceyA few weeks ago, air quality at the U.S. embassy in Beijing registered 755 on a scale to 500. A thick, choking haze enveloped the entire city. You couldn’t see from one high-rise office tower to the next; flights were cancelled, some highways were closed, schoolchildren were kept indoors, hospital admissions soared. China’s air quality problems aren’t limited to Beijing — a 2010 study found that air pollution led to 1.2 million premature deaths nationwide — and killer air is just one of the country’s ecological sorrows. One-half of its surface water is so polluted it can’t be treated to make it drinkable, and half of that is so bad it can’t even be used for industrial purposes. Seventy percent of the country’s rivers and lakes receive raw sewage or untreated industrial toxins. Cancer rates are up, and the country has been losing an area the size of Connecticut every year to desertification, brought on by unsustainable farming practices in grassland ecosystems.

In protest, Chinese people have begun taking to the streets in demonstrations that have increasingly become clashes, sometimes bloody, with riot police.

Between 1978 and 2008 the Chinese economy grew tenfold, outpacing the rest of the world. (For comparison: U.S. real GDP tripled in that period.) The growth has come at considerable and notorious cost in contaminated air and water and other “disamenities” — pulmonary disease, cancer, riots.

Are these the necessary costs of development? Of course not. So why is China paying them? As with most real-world questions there is no single answer, but one of the clearest, strongest, and saddest parts of a complete answer is this: China listened to the wrong economists.


Theorized relationship between pollution and income

Those economists are neither crazy nor blind. They can see the human cost of pollution and environmental degradation. But they’ve got a theory that reassures them the problem is only temporary and will fix itself: the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC), which plots a supposed relationship between pollution and income as an upside-down U. Before development, this theory says, pollution levels are low; pollution then increases as economic activity and income both rise; and then, at some tipping point, pollution hits a peak and begins to decline with additional income, as a wealthier population demands and can afford better environmental quality.

This, the standard economics textbooks say, is “intuitively appealing.” And it is — if your intuition has been shaped by traditional economic theory. If ecological damage can always be reversed, and if environmental quality isn’t a God-given gift or a basic human right but a commodity like any other, then it makes sense to think that you can buy a better environment when you get more income. Implication: “Growth is the Key to Protecting the Environment, Not its Enemy,” as one article on the EKC puts it.

This logic leads to an absurd conclusion (always a bad sign for a theory): the reason we have climate change is that the richest countries the planet has ever seen are still not rich enough to afford the environmental good known as “climate stability.” Nor can the EKC be defended on empirical grounds, as good science. The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics acknowledges that most EKC studies “are designed to yield inverse-U-shaped pollution-income paths, and succeed [in doing so by] using a variety of assumptions and mechanisms” — an approach more consistent with preservation of a faith than with scientific inquiry.

The faith that’s at stake are the dogmas of infinite growth. If pollution doesn’t at some point decrease permanently as income increases, we have to admit that there are ecological limits to economic activity.

While the inverted U of the EKC does describe the relationship between some key pollutants and GDP growth in most developed countries, that finding has fatal conceptual flaws. “Key” pollutants are not all pollutants, and particular pollutants aren’t the sole and permanent marker of ecological degradation. Policies that control one kind of pollutant (and which thereby send its EKC down) may simply encourage a shift to manufacturing processes that produce other kinds of pollutants — ones that aren’t (yet) regulated and haven’t ever been measured, so there’s no possible way to chart their history on an EKC.


Beijing’s gamble with the EKC has become a health hazard (photo credit: AnimaSuri)

Another kind of shift establishes an EKC for a pollutant in one country because the manufacturing process itself moves somewhere else. No EKC study has ever definitively excluded the possibility of this “pollution haven” effect. If exporting a dirty industrial process to a country with little or no regulation is cheaper than meeting regulatory standards at home, why would a profit-maximizing company do anything else?

In the effort to shift an economy’s pollution footprint to another country, the EKC is a big help. It reassures the recipient nation that poisoned air and water are a necessary phase of economic development; that someday it too will be rich enough to restore the environmental quality it once had. What the EKC doesn’t say: ecosystems can be degraded past any hope of repair or reclamation, as many a previous civilization learned the hard way. It doesn’t say: loss of biodiversity is a definitive element of ecosystem degradation, and an EKC for it is a logical impossibility. It doesn’t say: we live on finite planet, and there’s no guarantee that when you want to restore your country’s environmental quality, you’ll be able to find fresh pollution havens willing to accept your economy’s footprint.

Thus, China. In 2005, Pan Yue, then the vice minister of environmental protection, lamented his country’s acceptance of the EKC: “The assumption [was] that the economic growth [we pursued] will give us the financial resources to cope with the crises surrounding the environment, raw materials, and population growth.” Whether China can now reverse the damage and outsource the pollution-dump services that its environment has been asked to provide remains to be seen. One thing is clear: other parts of that country’s ecological footprint are being exported. China is now shopping for farmland in Africa and long-term agricultural leases in South America because its degraded landscape can’t support the human population it holds.

Still, the EKC has its defenders and continues to be treated as a sturdy economic finding — probably because if the EKC isn’t true, then a discipline dedicated to infinite growth will have to face up to the fact that there are limits to what nature can give to us and to what it can absorb from us. Evidence and logic — and the air quality in Beijing — say that yes, there are limits. It’s time for economists to stop seeing the world through the distorting, poisonous haze of an unsupportable theory and to start seeing the world as it is. The fate of our civilization depends on it.

Eric Zencey is a Fellow of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. He is the author, most recently, of The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy, from which this essay is drawn.