A New Economy Will Help Save Rivers and Fisheries

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderGlobalization and cheater economics have been destroying the world’s great rivers and their fisheries. Most people know about the devastation of rivers from water pollution, but not as many are aware of the significant impacts of big dams, river engineering, and real estate development in and on top of rivers. These activities can seriously damage fisheries and impair the natural functions of riverine ecosystems. A true-cost, steady state economy would, for the most part, avoid the continuing tragic dismantlement of rivers and fisheries.

The following three activities are causing major harm to rivers and fisheries, but would not occur in a true-cost, steady state economy.

Coal Ash Cesspools

The mining and burning of coal have come under enormous scrutiny because of the air pollution, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions they cause. There is another major but relatively unknown water pollution threat from coal burning, in addition to the smoke plume at the power plant–coal fly ash pits. After coal is burned at a power plant to generate electricity, the ash residue (which can contain serious toxins such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, etc.) is dumped into unlined ponds or pits near the power plant. These toxic cesspools, as they should be called, cause contamination of surface water, well water, and adjacent lands.

In February of 2014, one of Duke Energy’s dozens of coal ash cesspools malfunctioned, sending toxic sludge 70 miles down the Dan River in North Carolina and into Virginia. Six years earlier (December, 2008) a coal ash cesspool operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority broke, sending even greater quantities of toxic water and sludge into a tributary of the Tennessee River.

Independent testing of coal ash cesspools reveals a Pandora’s Box of toxins, findings that generally contradict assertions by utilities that things are okay. This growing issue amounts to a deadly in-your-face utility circus, flouting the law and flaunting the political power of utilities over state legislatures.

Utilities are doing what would never be allowed in a true-cost economy: they are externalizing the costs of dealing with fly ash from burning coal. Were they to include the health and pollution damages, the costs of coal would skyrocket and its use would be rapidly phased out.

Giant Dams

The economic evidence over the last 70 years against large dams has been assembled by economists at Oxford University (UK). They found, on average, large dam projects in developing countries exceed their construction cost budget by 90%, and often take over 10 years to complete.

Tonle Sap Lake Fish - Shankar S

Fish from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, one of the most fertile inland fisheries in the world, are facing threats from dams in the nearby Mekong River. Photo Credit: Shankar S

In addition, most mega-hydrodams omit genuine cost-accounting for their sometimes enormous adverse environmental and social impacts. For example, the public tends to think of hydroelectric power as a clean source of energy, not realizing that dams may be responsible for over 20% of the human-caused methane emissions. (Methane is a 20-30 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.) In Asia, the Mekong River contains the world’s largest inland fishery and provides livelihood for an estimated 60 million people. Large dams are planned across the mainstem of the river that would destroy the fish migrations of more than 200 species. One proponent of these dams said, “don’t worry, the people can just buy their fish from a fish farm once the river fish disappear.”

Again, a true-cost economy does not condone the blatant failure to include all the costs. See my February 2015 blog “Crossroads on Global Infrastructure” for more details on large infrastructure projects.

River Engineering and Response to Weather Disasters

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, New York and New Jersey received about $60 billion in relief and assistance. Instead of avoiding more development in top hazard zones, a burst of building permit applications has been made for more activities in and on top of the Hudson River, all in a number one hazard zone. A lot of this real estate development on piers would harm crucial habitat for over 100 fish, plant, and animal species. The proposals include such reckless propositions as an amphitheater and trees on an artificial “island” in the river. This is not free-enterprise development, but subsidized activity that eventually will necessitate a taxpayer “emergency relief bill” following the next hurricane or superstorm. We will never reach a sustainable economy if we have to keep spending hundreds of billions of dollars globally, bailing out new real estate development where it never should have been.

Real estate developments in and on top of rivers, armor-plating shorelines to enable more construction right on the coast, proliferating coal ash cesspools, and building mega-dams all have something in common. They can damage fishery habitats, disrupt fish migrations, and impair the healthy functioning of rivers in the US and worldwide. A true-cost economy recognizes that healthy rivers and flourishing fisheries are vital economic assets for cities and towns, and has principles that prevent their evisceration. The current globalized economy does not.

New Evidence for Changing the Nature of the Global Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

Billion-dollar weather catastrophes this year, along with the latest figures on Chinese consumption, emphasize the urgency of a shift in economic thinking.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cites 10 massive weather disasters in the U.S. this year, each exceeding a billion dollars. The nine months of unprecedented weather extremes include these estimates of death and damage:

  • Hurricane Irene: 50 deaths and $7 billion;
  • Upper Midwest flooding along the Missouri River: $2 billion;
  • Mississippi River flooding in spring and summer: $4 billion;
  • Drought and heat waves in Texas and Oklahoma: $5 billion;
  • Tornadoes in the Midwest and Southeast in May: 177 deaths and $7 billion;
  • Tornadoes in the Ohio Valley and Southeast in April: 32 deaths and $9 billion;
  • Tornadoes in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania in April: $2 billion;
  • Tornadoes in the Northeast and Midwest April 8-11: $2.2 billion;
  • Tornadoes in central and southern states April 4-5: $2.3 billion;
  • Blizzard in January from Chicago to the Northeast: 36 deaths and $2 billion.

Although we cannot conclude that any particular event was caused by global warming, climate models predict growing frequency and intensity of storms. The tragic weather events of 2011 could well be due to the accumulation of dangerous levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

This year’s disasters are sending a powerful signal that the time has arrived for a new economic framework. The current structure of markets puts the wrong prices on goods and services, because it neglects the ecological costs of producing them. This market failure is especially critical in the energy sector, where overconsumption of fossil fuels is driving climate destabilization.

How long can governments keep spending huge amounts to deal with catastrophe after catastrophe? Weather disasters undermine governance in two ways: first, they require large amounts of money and human resources for emergency relief, cleanup and rehabilitation. Second, they impair the ability of governments to provide ongoing public services by diverting revenue and personnel.

At the beginning of summer, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman pointed to alarming evidence that the human race is consuming at a rate that requires one and a half planet earths to maintain. Friedman describes the consumer-driven growth model as broken and suggests a transition to a “happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less.” Many of us have been making these very points for some time, but it is noteworthy that a major growth advocate has had a change of thinking. And now there is new data on consumption in China that reinforces our concerns.

In a recent article entitled “Learning from China: Why the Existing Economic Model Will Fail,” Lester Brown provides some sobering statistics. When compared to the U.S., China consumes twice as much meat, three times as much coal, and four times as much steel. The per capita consumption of the 1.2 billion people in China is far below that in the U.S., but it is moving upward and is on track to equal ours in 25 years, Brown notes.

What does such growth in consumption mean if the Chinese embrace the same spending habits as U.S. consumers? Take a look at two factors: paper and automobiles. If the projected 1.4 billion people in China in 2035 consume paper at the American rate, then China itself would consume a quantity equal to four fifths of today’s paper usage. The world’s forests, already under intense pressure, would suffer under this additional onslaught.

Lester Brown considers what would happen if Chinese car ownership in 2035 matched that of the U.S., which currently has three cars for every four people. China would have 1.1 billion cars. Today the world has roughly one billion automobiles. Brown estimates that such a fleet of vehicles would necessitate so many new roads and parking areas, that an area two thirds the size of the acreage now growing rice in China would have to be paved. All these new vehicles would consume about the same volume of gasoline that the entire world auto fleet currently uses each day.

Why are the Obama Administration and Congress so focused on the debt panel when there are such pressing problems with the economy at home and around the world? They are missing the big picture and failing to enact changes that are called for in these perilous times. Now is the time to write letters to the editor about real economic solutions. We don’t need to be slashing government programs; we need to be making progress toward the transition to a steady state economy.