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On Environmentalism – Premise 2: There is tension between economy and ecology

April 20, 2009

In my last post I said that worry over climate change is largely economic, and with this one I would like to elaborate on the economy-environment link.  It’s becoming quite popular to claim that we don’t have to make a choice between a healthy environment and a thriving economy.  I believe that we do.  I’m definitely no expert on economics, nor would I want to be, because the subject is of little interest to me, but I do believe I have common sense and a bit of a knack for seeing cause-effect relationships.  I’m sure there is some room for a “green economy,” and I’m sure some things can be improved without “going back to the Stone Age,” but the modern economy of endless growth cannot survive forever.

If we loosely define economic growth in the modern economy as the buying and selling of evermore goods and services with money, then we can see that the economy can grow in two ways: with the buying/selling of more goods, or the buying/selling of more services.  Obvious, duh.  Sometimes it might seem like we can’t think up any more services to provide for people, but I won’t state with any amount of certainty that people are done inventing new ways to serve others.  Goods, on the other hand, are limited; the sale of these simply cannot increase forever.  Therefore, for perpetual and everlasting economic growth, the economy depends heavily on services.  It makes sense then that for quite a while many of the world’s economies have steadily moved away from producing goods and toward providing services.  However, this is where I see a problem.

Remember this big bad economic “crisis” the world is facing?  I, an economics noob, would say much of the blame lies in the over-investment in things that weren’t real and concrete, things that weren’t goods.  A lot of money was created because money was detached from anything real, and now a lot of money is disappearing.  It makes sense that a lot of people don’t have as much money to spend.  It also makes sense that these people won’t have as much money to spend on services.  When it comes time to decide where to place their money—whether to spend it on a good, like the very food they need to eat, or to spend it on a service that they might not/probably don’t need—they’ll probably buy the goods before they spend money on the services.  This is bad news for the economy of everlasting growth.

To resume that everlasting growth, I posit, will require the infinite availability of goods, which, in a finite system (this planet being one), is an impossibility.  The everlasting growth of the goods economy inevitably brings us into carrying capacity overshoot, which I put forth in my last post as the greatest ecological issue there is.  It is in this way that the health of the economy is in direct opposition to the health of the world’s ecosystems.

Of course I say this in relation to the way things currently are.  The way things currently are, economic growth is the only acceptable situation.  The global economy is in a “crisis,” but really it has only shrunk by a few percent.  A recession is a lack of growth—that’s it.  In the First World the lifestyle is still largely  untouched, even though we’re starting to give things up.  We don’t have food riots (yet), we’re not plagued with constant warfare (yet), and yet, somehow, we consider ourselves to be in the middle of a crisis.  The economy of everlasting growth has long been the norm, and so any deviation from the norm is a shock to the collective system.  Some countries consider their economies to be in recession when experiencing levels of growth that they don’t consider high enough; they aren’t shrinking at all, just not growing the way they are supposed to.  How crazy to think this way.

I’m not saying that global ecological catastrophe is on the calendar for tomorrow and that it’s going to take the world economy with it, but that the economy cannot grow forever because the world’s ecosystems will not allow it.  The battle is real and something we need to be wary of.

Economy and ecology—the first thing I realize about the two words is that they start the same, with eco-.  First impressions suggest that there is something to that, and these impressions are correct.  Eco- originates from the Greek word for home; this, again, makes sense.  Caring for one’s home requires sound economic practices, but it also requires that the environment of that home is suitable for living.  And herein lies the modern problem: our economy is creating a constant flow of useless crap that we want, insist we need, and it’s cluttering up our homes, making them messy, dirty, unhealthy, and unlivable.

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