When unemployment spikes, when prices rise or wages don’t, people suffer.
But environmentally speaking, there’s a problem. When our economy is what we call “strong,” or begins what we call a “recovery,” people might have more money in their pockets. But because of the way our economy is built, economic happiness means environmental devastation.
This might be a hard idea for people to grasp. Most people believe that environmental destruction is the result of accidents, like the BP oil spill. If they’re really on top of things, they are also alarmed about things like mountaintop-removal mining, the overfishing of the oceans and man-made climate change – phenomena seem as really extreme examples of human abuse of the planet.
But the trouble isn’t just at the extremes of single catastrophes or negligent practices. It’s much deeper than that.
The trouble is actually our entire economy. For a century, and in particular the past 60 years, the entire U.S. economy has been built on a presumption of cheap fossil fuels – oil, coal and gas.
Without these fuels, everything we’ve been doing for 60 years – from flying to the moon, coating everything in plastic and building strip malls to invading small sovereign nations – is essentially unthinkable.
With them, however, we’re slowly poisoning ourselves. From the synthetic chemicals that now infest the bloodstreams of essentially every being on earth to the mining debris that buries rivers to the plastic six-pack rings that choke seabirds on remote Pacific islands.
Don’t be fooled by ads for electric cars or most claims of “green” or “sustainable” anything. Most everything we do results in some kind of long-term injury to the planet.
The trouble for the environment isn’t just when things go wrong. Most of it’s happening when things are going right.
All this and more is why I find it kind of hard to celebrate when I hear that housing starts are up, or that we’re buying more crap from China, or even that we’re making more crap here to sell somewhere else.
We’re pleased to call such economic activity “growth,” but it’s not growth. As author Francis Moore-Lappe argues, however, if you oppose “growth,” you’re fighting a losing battle, linguistically and otherwise.
Rather, she says, we have to call things by their real names.
Our economy considers any money spent a good sign, regardless of what it’s spent on: If I buy a Twinkie, I’m growing the economy; if I eat a tomato from my garden, I’m practically taking food out of someone else’s mouth. Someone once said that economically, the ideal consumer would be a terminal cancer patient who gets into a car crash on his latest meeting with his divorce lawyer.
Digging up minerals so we can play with them for a few minutes and then bury them again isn’t growth. It’s waste, and destruction. So is buying the cars and the gas that let you sit in traffic an hour every morning on the way to work.
When the matter of the countries of the Global South is raised, it is often said that their economies must grow; they need “development.”
But there must be a better way for them to meet their needs than industries that foster the climate change that is already making many of them refugees, their coasts swamped, rivers dry and soil barren. Else the economies we foster to enrich us will leave us, in the long run, poorer than we can imagine.