Economic Growth: The Missing Link in Environmental Journalism

by Brian Czech

Environmental journalists are like doctors. Doctors run from patient to patient, harried, dealing with symptoms more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing pills to talk about holistic health. It’s an approach that makes money for the health industry but isn’t so great for public health.

Environmental journalists run from issue to issue, harried, dealing with environmental impacts more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing stories to talk about context. It’s an approach that makes money for the media but isn’t so great for environmental protection.

The analogy isn’t perfect. Environmental journalists don’t have an obligation to protect the environment like doctors are obligated to patient health. But journalists are obligated to tell the truth: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Here we’re concerned with the “whole” truth, and it’s worth extending the analogy in this direction.

Let’s say the doctor has an overweight patient. The patient was small as a child and developed an obsession with gaining weight. It’s hard to shift mental gears. Fully mature now, this patient’s top goal is growing even more! This has led to all kinds of problems: bad knees, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea to mention a few.

Now imagine the doctor prescribing more pills for each new ailment, never saying a thing about the patient’s obsession with growth. When will the doctor talk about the big picture? The patient is just not getting it on his own. To him, getting even bigger seems like the solution to all problems, not the cause.

Similarly, we have a society — a readership — that considers economic growth the top priority. This unhealthy obsession has led to all kinds of problems: biodiversity loss, climate change, and ocean acidification to name a few. Yet the reader is just not making the connection. Growing GDP seems like the answer to all problems, not the cause.

A code of ethics prevents journalists from advocating policies. It’s “just the facts ma’am.” But environmental journalists would probably be working for the environment if they weren’t writing about it. That’s my guess after attending three of the last five Society of Environmental Journalists conferences, most recently two weeks ago in Lubbock, Texas.

Yet the journalists have been missing the environmental forest for the trees. Try to remember the last article you read about an environmental problem in which economic growth was even mentioned, much less explored with nuance. Can you?

Journalists covering climate negotiations sometimes identify economic growth as the goal in the way of progress. China and India aren’t about to give up on growth now, and for that matter neither is the United States. Our “way of life is not up for negotiation.” But that’s about it for coverage. There’s little exploration of the nuances: of how in a 90% fossil-fueled economy, economic growth means climate change; of how “green” energy can’t substitute for fossil fueling of the economy; of how a stabilized climate amounts to a steady state economy.

And that’s just the context of one environmental problem: climate change. When, in reading about biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, depletion of aquifers, fisheries decline, etc., do we read about the linkage to economic growth? All environmental problems track with GDP growth, and it’s no coincidence. The relationship between economic growth and environmental impact is causal, just as gaining weight is causal of bad knees. Economic growth is an 800-pound gorilla with two arms: population and per capita consumption. It doesn’t happen without environmental impact.

It’s ironic that environmental journalists don’t tap into the big picture of economic growth. After all, generating a buzz is all about connecting with society’s concerns. It’s about relevance. What is more relevant today than economic growth? What is more covered in the broader media? What gets more attention from politicians?

The environmental journalist’s take on economic growth will sound odd at first. Readers are used to thinking of economic growth as the solution to problems, not the cause. But that’s OK. Readers are like the obese patient intent on gaining weight. When it dawns on them that economic growth is the cause of so many problems, not the solution, their interest will be piqued, and many will develop an appetite for journalism on economic growth and the sustainable alternative, the steady state economy. The whole truth will set them free from the fallacious rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

Environmental journalists don’t have an obligation to environmental protection. But they do have a unique opportunity. They have the opportunity to raise awareness of the whole truth, however inconvenient, that environmental protection doesn’t square with economic growth.

Pulling Back the Curtain on Economic Growth’s Magic Act

by Rob Dietz

A good story often includes a touch of magic — just ask Harry Potter or Twilight fans. See if you can spot the magic in the following passage by Charles Wheelan from his book Naked Economics, in which he considers the question, “Who feeds Paris?”:

Somehow the right amount of fresh tuna makes its way from a fishing fleet in the South Pacific to a restaurant on the Rue de Rivoli. A neighborhood fruit vendor has exactly what his customers want every morning — from coffee to fresh papayas — even though those products may come from ten or fifteen different countries. In short, a complex economy involves billions of transactions every day, the vast majority of which happen without any direct government involvement.

Let’s ignore for now that Wheelan’s “right amount” of fresh tuna corresponds to a disappearing fishery (the closure of vast fishing areas in the South Pacific is a story for another time). Wheelan’s argument and the main message of today’s globalized economy is that Twinkies spontaneously sprout on supermarket shelves. Hamburgers originate from the silver stovetops of McDonalds restaurants. Water itself flows from shiny taps, translucent bottles, and fancy vending machines. We don’t need to concern ourselves with trifling matters such as where this stuff comes from or how it arrives. Because of the magic of the market, we only need to know how to get our hands on sufficient cash, credit, or public funds to buy it. In a nutshell, the argument says that all the cheap food, cheap products, and cheap thrills of modern times spring directly from global trade and economic growth.

Is this the guy responsible for perpetual economic growth?
Photo credit: Yang and Yun

To a neutral observer, it certainly can look like magic — like Adam Smith dressed as Merlin, summoning all this visible wealth with his invisible hand. That’s essentially what Wheelan and other economic analysts are saying. Through the magic of free markets, we can produce and consume an ever-increasing amount of stuff (and as a side note, we’ll be rich enough to clean up any associated environmental messes, or at least export them to less enlightened nations).

That’s some trick, but it’s not real magic — it’s just an illusion. If we take a step back and observe what’s happening, we can expose the illusion and see that the market is hiding something up its sleeve: cheap energy. That’s the crowning achievement of a new book called Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth — it pulls back the curtain on the market’s magic act. With photographs that manage to frighten and inspire at the same time, and with essays that provoke both deep thought and deep concern, Energy clarifies how the economy is able to achieve miracles such as the shipment of papayas to Paris, and it assesses the prospects for keeping the magic going.

Every economic transaction is underwritten by a continuous supply of abundant and cheap energy. This supply “supports the entire scaffolding of civilization.” (p. 8) The complex web of trades and transactions and mass consumption have been made possible by the exploitation of energy-dense fossil fuels. And continued growth of such an economic system requires increasing supplies of energy.

Energy presents facts about the fossil-fueled economy that are well known in several circles but ignored in most:

  • One gallon of gasoline, which costs a few dollars, is so energy-dense that it can push a 3,000-pound vehicle twenty miles.
  • If human labor were used to meet the energy requirements of a typical American lifestyle, more than 100 people (dubbed “energy slaves”) would have to work around the clock for each American.
  • Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, energy use and economic activity have increased in lockstep.
  • Fossil fuels are depletable, and burning them produces serious environmental side effects.

These facts help illuminate the predicament of modern society. We’ve built a set of institutions and a way of life that require continuous economic growth. But such growth is entirely dependent on access to cheap energy. And using more and more cheap energy is digging us into a deeper and deeper hole of spoiled landscapes, unstable climate, and biodiversity loss. But politicians, pundits, and the public have swept this predicament away with the insane assumption that economic growth can go on forever because of things like technological ingenuity, market efficiency, and labor productivity (all of which are dependent on access to cheap energy).

It can be a real downer to contemplate the way humanity has used so many energy resources (resources that were given to us by nature) to dig this hole. But the authors of Energy refuse to wallow at the bottom of the hole. Instead, they construct a ladder with rungs made out of ideas for change — ideas like educating the public to develop widespread energy literacy, conserving both energy resources and natural landscapes, and establishing resilient communities. These rungs offer a hopeful transition to better ways and better days. The hopeful conclusion is that we can figure out how to live the good life in a powered-down economy — an economy that accepts enough as its organizing principle rather than more.

In her lyrical and contemplative afterword, Lisi Krall writes, “Perhaps the real question of progress is not how to forge a new energy frontier, but how to forge a different model of economic organization and purpose, a model that isn’t predicated on never-ending growth and a belief that there are no real biophysical limits.” She believes that it’s time to give the magicians the hook. Luckily Krall and her colleagues in ecological economics, along with the authors of Energy, have been working on an economic model that is based on scientific observation and humility rather than magical thinking and arrogance.

The Tyranny of Comfort

by Rob Dietz

When I was a kid, I was on the neighborhood swim team in the summers. No one mistook me for Michael Phelps. In fact, I may be the anti-Phelps. We’re both lean, but while his body is built for buoyancy, mine seems to be designed for sinking. Each year to celebrate the end of the season, the swim team held a potluck banquet and bestowed awards upon the best swimmers. Most years I took home the Coach’s Award, the consolation prize given to the kid who tried hard despite having no chance to win a race. To make matters worse, my nickname as a competitive swimmer was Colonel Mustard. The pool had four lanes. First place earned you a blue ribbon; second place, a red ribbon; and third place, a white ribbon. The obligatory prize for fourth place was a mustard yellow ribbon.

During the season when I was 9 or 10 years old, we had a meet at the opposing team’s pool on a surprisingly cool June evening. My mom and dad sat in chairs on the grass at the edge of the pool deck with other parents rooting for their aquatically gifted offspring. I had just finished a race in my customary place — last. I didn’t have another race for a while, so I went over to where my parents were seated. I was starting to shiver, and it probably showed on my face that I was feeling dejected. Without a word, my dad opened up a towel, wrapped me in it like a mummy, and sat me down in his lap. He used the towel to wipe away my goosebumps, my chattering teeth, and the pain of defeat. I didn’t swim any faster in the next race, but I sure felt a lot better. That evening my dad gave me one of the most memorable gifts I’ve ever received — it was a gift of comfort.

Comfort… the word has a positive connotation; it even sounds pleasant to the ear. It derives from the Latin, comfortare, which literally means to strengthen much. Most people can recall meaningful moments of comfort. But how do we come to appreciate such comfort? How can we be “strengthened much” by such comfort? Only if it comes in response to adversity.

It’s simple to see the benefits of comfortable living. Who wants to lead a life of suffering and deprivation? When you’re hungry, it’s good to have food. When you’re cold or sick, it’s good to have a place to go. When you’re feeling downhearted, it’s good to have the support of a caring companion. We feel comforted when we are able to meet our needs. But there is a limit to the benefits of comfort. If I were to arrange my life with comfort-seeking as the ultimate goal, I would miss out on some of the best stuff.

I would never have felt the warmth from my dad had I not first felt the chill of the pool and the sting of the last-place finish. I would never ride my bike, especially not in the rain. In fact, I might not venture out of doors very often (sometimes the temperature veers dangerously from a comfortable 75 degrees Farenheit). I would never push myself beyond the bounds of comfort to experience what life has to offer. In a lengthy tirade on the subject, Edward Abbey exhorted tourists to exit their vehicles and subject themselves to the wonderful discomfort of the desert (from Desert Solitaire):

“Look here, I want to say, for godsake folks get out of them there machines, take off those fucking sunglasses and unpeel both eyeballs, look around; throw away those goddamned idiotic cameras! For chrissake folks what is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare? Take off your shoes for a while, unzip your fly, piss hearty, dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood! Why not? Jesus Christ, lady, roll that window down! You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it! Dusty! Of course it’s dusty – this is Utah! But it’s good dust, good red Utahn dust, rich in iron, rich in irony. Turn that motor off. Get out of that piece of iron and stretch your varicose veins, take off your brassiere and get some hot sun on your old wrinkled dugs… …Yes sir, yes madam, I entreat you, get out of those motorized wheelchairs, get off your foam rubber backsides, stand up straight like men! like women! like human beings! and walk — walk — WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!”

What about the role of comfort in a broader sense, beyond the life of an individual or a family? Comfort seems to have pushed its way to the top of the priorities list when it comes to the economy (maybe comfort takes the red ribbon, a few body lengths behind the blue-ribbon winner, growth). Marketers and consumers share the blame. Ubiquitous ads convince us how much more comfortable we’ll be when we own <insert your favorite overblown, overpriced product here>. And we consistently convince ourselves that we can satisfy our needs by purchasing evermore “comfortable crap.” It’s as if the purpose of the economy is to make sure we’re comfortable.

Is this the American dream?

Blind pursuit of comfort must take some blame for the quandary we find ourselves in. In America, we’re burning through an incredible bounty of fossil fuel, a bounty so energy-dense that most of us fail to comprehend its magnitude. And we’re burning that fuel at a frightening rate to support what Dick Cheney termed our “non-negotiable way of life.” This way of life is centered on comfort. Centered on driving what we want when we want. Centered on powering ever bigger TV screens. Centered on transporting evermore goods along oversized freeways. Centered on consuming any available resource. Perhaps it’s only news to Mr. Cheney (and other politicians before and since), but “unsustainable” will trump “non-negotiable” every time. And America is about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not the pursuit of comfort.

Like anything else, the pursuit of comfort (both at the household level and at the macro-economic level) requires balance. Some comfort is good. Chasing constant comfort is counterproductive. Another author who’s not quite as hotheaded as Edward Abbey, but just as insightful, has made this point. William Somerset Maugham once wrote, “Any nation that thinks more of its ease and comfort than its freedom will soon lose its freedom; and the ironical thing about it is that it will lose its ease and comfort too.”

The Role of Regulation in a Steady State Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

Regulations have played an essential role in modern attempts to curtail pollution, prevent abuses in the banking system, ensure safe food, and protect public health. They have been indispensable in checking powerful corporate interests that abuse the public trust.

Now, just on the heels of the global financial collapse and forty years after the first Earth Day, we are witnessing two frustrating failures in the United States:

(1) the failure of regulatory bodies to perform their duties, and

(2) the failure of regulations to achieve objectives contained in major laws (e.g., the coal strip mining law (SMCRA), the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act).

A prime example is the inability and the unwillingness of the government to implement the law and halt the obliteration of portions of the Appalachian Mountains by mountaintop-removal mining. Despite creative strategies by many citizen groups involving all branches of government — legislative, executive, and judicial — the erasure of the landscape continues. The destruction of these biologically diverse mountains in West Virginia and the wreckage of public drinking water, however, are not just environmental nightmares. They are also economic calamities that are completely incongruent with the principles of a steady state economy.  A corporation with a health, safety, and environmental record like Massey Energy would not even be able to maintain a license to do business in a steady state economy.

Better regulation could prevent problems like this nightmare on Kayford Mountain.

Regulations, including tax code changes and outright bans on particularly destructive practices, will be part of the landscape in a steady state economy, but we have to structure them differently. We need to change the dynamics that cripple much regulation today. Here are some key elements of the regulatory transition aimed at curtailing the abuses of corporations and preventing pollution:

(1) Make it vastly more expensive to pollute than to prevent pollution: no more token fines, legal delays, and slaps on the wrist.

(2) Increase taxes on pollution — it’s a no-brainer to tax what we want to reduce or eliminate.

(3) Apply special regulatory attention to the natural resource extracting industries (i.e., fossil fuel, timber, and mining). These industries are causing immense pollution and wiping out entire ecosystems. Extra disincentives should accompany any regulations on pipelines, drilling, reactors and other risky ventures where the consequence of an accident — natural or man-made — produces very damaging health or environmental impacts.

(4) Economize the use of raw natural resources in production processes and establish comprehensive recycling programs. In his seminal book, Cradle to Cradle, architect William McDonough has described such a strategy for reducing the enormous throughput of raw materials to a sustainable level.

Here are two examples to illustrate the above points:

(1) The U.S. strategy for phasing out the use of ozone-depleting chemicals under the Ozone Treaty of 1987 (Montreal Protocol) was a smashing success. It is a strategy worth implementing for other pollutants. The Congress set phase-out dates for a group of ozone-depleting chemicals and imposed a steeply increasing tax on their usage until the date of the ban arrived. In response, corporations stopped using the chemicals ahead of schedule, quite a different scenario from the usual foot-dragging.

(2) Yet another oil spill just occurred, this time on Montana’s magnificent Yellowstone River when an Exxon pipeline ruptured and spilled an estimated 42,000 gallons. In the past year the world has witnessed a major nuclear catastrophe in Japan at the reactors in Fukushima, run by Tokyo Electric (TEPCO), as well as a gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico when BP’s deep drilling went awry. In these and other similar cases the current global system privatizes the gains and socializes the losses (i.e., the corporations keep the profits, and citizens get stuck with the bill for the environmental disasters). Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz observes that societies following this policy “inevitably mismanage risk.” With each passing day, it becomes clearer that we need to manage risk, not continue to mismanage it. Thus, regulatory controls on extractive industries must reflect the riskiness and magnitude of adverse outcomes.

In contrast to this discussion on improving regulatory approaches, the present Republican leadership has given a green light to eviscerating regulations across the board, much as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich attempted in the mid 1990s. This is part of a long-term, deliberate effort to frame regulation as being the problem, not the solution.

I suggest that we directly confront this ideology and switch the frame to view new regulatory approaches as problem-solvers that will achieve beneficial results for human civilization and the ecosystems we inhabit.