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Giant Mats of Green Slime in Lake Erie Signal a Need for New Economic Approaches to Pollution

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderFor the past 40 years, I have spent family summer vacations in Northern Michigan to enjoy a fresh water paradise of small lakes and rivers, along with the Great Lake Michigan.

Ghanbani, Slimeade

What does this have to do with economic growth? Photo Credit: Haraz N. Ghanbari of AP

This year, not all of the Great Lakes turned out to be great: Lake Erie was covered with massive algal mats at its western end, forcing the closure of Toledo’s water supply that serves 400,000 people. A sample of the intake water for Toledo looked like a glass of thick green slimeade.

So, what is the link between this latest water pollution debacle, economic growth, and a true-cost economy? I will argue that in a steady state, true-cost economy, there would be much less reliance on pollution regulations. The chief tool would be bans, along with significant harm charges, on those products and processes that threatened public health or jeopardized the functioning of life support systems for the earth.

What causes me to advocate such a major change in the U.S. approach to pollution can be seen in three big water pollution events this year. My CASSE blog in March dealt with two significant water pollution events earlier this year–the coal-processing spill that shut down the water supply to Charleston, West Virginia, and the bursting of a coal waste storage pond in North Carolina, sending toxic sludge 70 miles downstream in the Dan River.

In my March blog, I discussed better economic approaches to pollution that would be pursued in a true-cost, steady state economy.  Before going into these approaches, it is important to understand the huge frustration that the American public was experiencing in the 1960s from hundreds of water pollution incidents and the failure of governmental bodies to put a halt to this.

In the early 1970s, many of us worked to obtain the 1972 Clean Water Act that featured the promise of making waters of our nation fishable and swimmable by 1986. Two remarkable examples helped drive public awareness and force Congress to enact this law: the Cayahoga River catching on fire and Lake Erie becoming a dead lake.

If someone had told us that 40 years later Lake Erie would experience massive green slime algal mats, we would have said, “No thanks, we need a truly strong law that would bring back Lake Erie from the dead, not a law so permissive that four decades later we would have a monster slime blob in 2011 stretching 120 miles from Cleveland to Toledo, followed by yet another huge slime mass in 2014.”

So now we are confronted with the abysmal failures of the regulatory system at the state and federal level, along with the tepid responses to the latest pollution disaster in Lake Erie. The time has come to demand a change to our economic approaches to pollution and begin the transition to a true-cost, sustainable economy.

To get down to brass tacks on the Lake Erie green slime, we must recognize that the chief cause is agricultural runoff. According to Don Scavia, director of the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan, “the primary driver is the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie from agriculturally dominated watersheds.” The state of Ohio reports that two thirds of the phosphorus comes from farm lands.

So let’s start calling for a national ban on gigantic animal factory farms with hundreds and hundreds of animals crowded together. Such factory slum operations would not occur in a steady state economy. They are a microcosm of what happens with too much growth in numbers and pollution. When any population of animals or people get into overly crowded conditions, pollution overwhelms the carrying capacity of the land and water, disease increases, and violence breaks out.  Today, industrial agriculture is increasing in size and adverse impacts, although organic farming is making inroads.

While pushing for bans, we should also demand harm charges for the damages bad agricultural practices have on lakes. Look at the cost of losing a city’s water supply, the health costs, and the costs to the recreation economy in the region. Today animal factory operations and industrial agriculture escape monetary responsibility for the many harms they cause.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) could require businesses to disclose their pollution externalities when they file their annual financial reports. The Dodd-Frank Act requires companies to disclose conflict minerals in their supply chains, thus setting a precedent for the SEC to act. Revelation of these pollution externalities would constitute the first step in forcing the creators to cover their true costs of production.

My argument runs counter to the major thrust taken to deal with air, land, and water pollution since Earth Day 1970, which was primarily a regulatory approach. Some of the pollution laws have worked quite well, providing crucial health benefits and safeguarding ecosystems, but many are not set to deal with the magnitude of the pollution issues of the 21st century. For example, powerful bee-killing pesticides are causing collapses of bee colonies nationwide. Such pesticides should be banned since they threaten human food supply, about two thirds of which depends on the pollinators. Other pesticides and herbicides kill vegetation relied upon by butterflies such as the monarch that needs milkweed to lay its eggs on.  Bans are possible. Several European countries banned the powerful herbicide atrazine in the early 1990s, but this poison is widely used in the United States despite substantial scientific evidence about its health impacts.

The response taken by environmental groups and official state and federal agencies to the grotesque pollution of Lake Erie has been primarily to call for better regulation, which leads to more bureaucratic procrastination and few results. No one has called for a ban on bad practices of industrial agriculture or called for a shutdown of the big, filthy animal feedlots that are a cesspool of pollution and disease. These should be outlawed! It is not impossible. The Michigan legislature did ban phosphorus in lawn fertilizer.

The industrial agriculture system has grown so large in the United States that it is transgressing planetary boundaries, causing algal blooms and dead zones in lakes, bays, and estuaries. Certain parts of the economy, like those associated with industrial animal slums, need to shrink. Bans and harm charges must become frequently used economic tools.

Fresh Water, Growth, Degrowth, and the Steady State Economy

by Geoffrey Matthews

Geoffrey MatthewsIn Our Common Future, the 1987 report of the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainable development is described as a process of change which meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and aspirations. To achieve this objective, the report suggests a series of goals that should underlie national and international action on development. In the authors’ opinion, the most important of these is “a production system that respects the obligation to preserve the ecological base for development.”

The only way to do this is to manage economic growth or degrowth by the adoption of an economic policy where development may not exceed ecological limits–precisely the definition of the steady state economy proposed by CASSE.

However, in spite of initiatives by extraordinarily committed individuals, developments in ecological economics, and publications by Herman Daly and other members of CASSE, the traditional development process continues almost unchanged. This process fails to appropriately prioritize the social, economic, and environmental sectors to ensure that the growth of each does not occur at the expense of the others. Consequently, the conflicts between economic growth and the environment continue unabated, improvements to quality-of-life are slow and unsustainable, and poverty continues to erode the advances that have been made.

I believe one of the major reasons the concept of a steady state economy is not gaining traction is the omission of the role of fresh water in the production and maintenance of all its ecosystem and economic goods and services. The value of fresh water is that it sustains the life support system via the hydrological cycle. This cycle is the natural phenomenon whereby solar energy evaporates water from the surface of the planet to form clouds, and returns the water back to the planet’s surface in the form of rain, mist, and snow.

Matthews, Fig 1This diagram represents the availability of water in the economy and the environment. The quantity (Q) will vary over time (T) due to changes in the hydrological cycle, climate variations, and pollution. These variations in availability will always affect the scale of the economy and the ecosystem, because fresh water is required for every environmental and economic activity on this planet. To ensure a steady state economy, the supply of fresh water required to satisfy the ecosystem demand must be maintained at the expense of the economy’s demand for fresh water. Therefore, the scale of an economy and the services it produces are subservient to the availability of fresh water and the maintenance of the ecosystem services in its region. This means an economy can only grow within the dynamic hydrological envelope, and under the red supply line. As soon as its demand reaches the available supply, growth must stop, as in the below figure.

Matthews, Fig 2Indeed, some planning committees have made explicit the understanding that economic scale is subservient to fresh water availability–for example, the Town of Okotoks, Alberta, Canada. In 2002, Okotoks designed a Water Management Plan based on the limits of the environmental carrying capacity of the Sheep River and its watershed, gross water consumption of about 300 liters per capita per day, and an urban development policy that provided no allowance for extending utility services outside the town’s municipal boundary. However, in 2013, after consulting the citizens of Okotoks, the town decided to pursue urban growth by annexing adjacent land, but not at the expense of the water required to satisfy the Sheep River ecosystem demand. The present population of Okotoks is about 27,000, and the actual water supply will permit this population to grow until it reaches 35,000. Beyond this limit, additional water will be drawn from a regional water supply system via Calgary.

Conversely, in the case of a drought, when the hydrological envelope shrinks naturally, the economy must downsize or degrow, as in the below figure. No continent is immune to this natural phenomenon, and issues of food security often become the main concern. The degree of intensity and duration of droughts vary, so the amount of downsizing or degrowing will depend on the ability of the citizens and local/regional authorities to cope. Holistic water resources management and drought preparedness are key to the coping capacity of communities. There are no easy solutions because humanity cannot, and will never, control the behaviour of the hydrological cycle.

Matthews, Fig 3So what does this mean in terms of a “full world”? To date, we are accustomed to talking about a finite planet and ecological footprints in terms of the number of planets needed to support us. Although correct, many people cannot easily sense the impact of the deterioration of the life support systems, the loss of biodiversity, and the depletion of renewable and non-renewable natural resources on his or her quality of life because the process is relatively slow. Compare this to the change in the supply of fresh water due to the behaviour of the climate or pollution. This is a daily topic of conversation because fresh water is vital, and people’s reactions in terms of quality of life, finance, effects on aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity, farming, industry, population carrying capacity, etc. are always immediate. In other words, they already know that “their world” is defined by the finite amount of water and quality of water in their region.

As fresh water is an important “full world” parameter, I propose fresh water management be incorporated more fully into steady state policies and discussions with, for example, Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). IWRM, as defined by the Global Water Partnership, is a process that promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.

Like the example of Okotoks above, Ecuador is aware that its water demand is reaching the limit of its resources, particularly due to increases in population from 2.8 million in 1950, to 14.7 million in 2013. To address this situation, the government began implementing IWRM and population management simultaneously. IWRM began on February 19, 2008, when the National Constitutional Assembly declared

The State should guarantee the preservation, conservation, protection, restoration, sustainable use and integrated management of watersheds, including necessary quality and quantity of ecological flows to sustain the integrity of all ecosystems associated with the hydrologic cycle, in order to safeguard the satisfaction of individual and collective human needs in function with societal health, including respecting the rights of nature and preserving biological diversity.

Population growth is being managed via free contraception, family planning, and education. As IWRM is designed to replace traditional top-down fragmented sector management with a bottom up cross-sector approach relying on cooperation, coordination, and population decrease, tangible results are not apparent at present. This will take time, perhaps a generation. While the dual policies of IWRM and population management have not been incorporated into a stated steady state economy objective, this is a very promising beginning.

Geoffrey Matthews is a water engineer, now living in France.