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An Economy That Does Not Consider Ecology Is Not Sustainable

As long as economics always takes precedence, ecology will inevitably come back to bite us in the ass

Exploitation of the environment through over-extraction of resources and toxic pollution are externalities that are rarely discussed in the context of “the market” or economic growth. (Photo: iStock)

Exploitation of the environment through over-extraction of resources and toxic pollution are externalities that are rarely discussed in the context of “the market” or economic growth. (Photo: iStock)

Have you ever noticed that economics dominates our news? All day long we hear reports on the Dow and NASDAQ. There are business sections of newspapers. Television and radio news includes market reports, financial reports, and money reports. Segments of major news programs are dedicated to economics and finance. We even have individual news programs and networks solely devoted to the discussion of money matters. Indeed, economics permeates the discourse on nearly every matter presented to the public. Stories may cover politics, human affairs, entertainment, art, health, and science, but in the end most foundationally concern money.

Stories may cover politics, human affairs, entertainment, art, health, and science, but in the end most foundationally concern money.

Now, imagine if all of that time and attention were paid to issues related to the environment, i.e., ecology. Imagine news segments, news programs, and news channels that put the crux of our lives in the context of the climate change, resource use, toxic contamination, pollution, and the plight of other species rather than the economy. Perhaps we might have a great deal more knowledge about exactly what our way of life is doing to our own health and the health of the global ecosystem. Perhaps we might be more concerned by the seemingly innocuous things we do everyday that detrimentally affect ourselves and our global life support system. Perhaps we’d actually be able to say that we truly have a fourth estate dedicated to benefiting people and planet rather than corporate entities and Wall Street.

Those who discuss money matters in the mainstream press tend to be appallingly out of touch with the economic realities of the majority of Americans. Economists extol the virtues of spending for the sake of economic growth, then admonish the people whose atrociously (in a just world, criminally) low wages barely allow them to make a living, let alone allow for extraneous purchases. Real estate market growth is touted as advantageous, while much of the American population can no longer afford rent in most major cities, to say nothing of affording a mortgage.

But even the more enlightened economists rarely include environmental concerns in their economic analyses. There is a glaring disconnect between the reality of our environmental predicament and our constant fixation with economics (particularly in the consumer realm). As a general rule, production and consumption are viewed as inevitable and beneficial, when both are wholly environmentally unsustainable. Exploitation of the environment through over-extraction of resources and toxic pollution are externalities that are rarely discussed in the context of “the market” or economic growth. Frankly, this omission of the ecological repercussion of economic endeavors renders most economic analysis moot. At this point in time, it is clear to anyone remotely schooled in natural science that our global ecosystem is on the decline, to put it mildly. In the broadest sense, toxic substances in our air, water, and products, overuse of resources, pollution, and fossil-fuel generated climate change comprise the main issues that imperil life on the planet. Much of what economists predict and propose would have very little - or at least, much less - relevance if they were to fully incorporate these environmental realities into their equations, which is probably why they do not.

Much of what economists predict and propose would have very little - or at least, much less - relevance if they were to fully incorporate these environmental realities into their equations, which is probably why they do not.

Take this recent article by Dean Baker that suggests economic growth can continue while tending to our environmental concerns. While the author clearly means well, his cursory knowledge of our concurrent environmental emergencies shines through (and continues to in his follow-up piece). His focus is on the impact of economic changes (potentially, degrowth of the economy) that might occur as a result of addressing the climate crisis, but he fails to understand that there is so much more that needs to be addressed other than carbon emissions in order to generate a sustainable global ecosystem. It seems clear that despite the fact that those in the environmental realm have been studying and debating degrowth for decades, the concept is new to him, or he has not delved into the history of the subject deeply. Moreover, unlike environmental advocates and interdisciplinary environmental scholars, he has not thought comprehensively about the enormity of our environmental problems, which is not surprising, since it is not his field.

He concludes that industries like software, entertainment, education, and medicine will continue growing the economy in a sustainable fashion, even if other fields must shrink economically to protect the environment. He assumes it is a necessary for society for these aforementioned fields to advance - a very questionable assumption – or that they are industries that can grow sustainably. Yet, all of those disciplines, at least as they currently exist, require tremendous use of non-renewable, non-biodegradable, sometimes toxic resources, generate tremendous amounts of waste, and are not at all sustainable in their current forms. Therefore, their role in preserving economic growth, growth which Baker suggests is unavoidable, is tenuous, to say the least.

In order to be sustainable, all inputs and outputs need to renewable, generating zero waste. All it takes is a superficial examination of the above-mentioned industries to understand that none of them, much like all industries on earth, are currently sustainable in any manner.

Software is inextricably tied to devices, all of which are created to have limited life-spans and to be continually replaced (known in the business world as “planned obsolescence”). Technological devices transport the ecological and health harms of production (mining for rare earth and other materials) and end-of-life elimination (e-waste) to the most vulnerable and exploited people on the planet.

Entertainment, such as film and television production, is one of the most resource intensive and wasteful industries imaginable. Inputs such as costumes and sets are constantly purchased and discarded or destroyed.

Schools at all levels consume resources continuously. Look at all of the plastics in modern classrooms in many forms of educational materials and manipulatives. Look at all of the disposable snacks and food packages and all of the food waste. Look at all of the technological gadgets (that have not proven helpful to student education at elementary levels) that leave heaps of e-waste in their wake. Blackboards and chalk, made of non-toxic and renewable slate stone and calcium carbonate respectively, have been replaced with plastic white boards and potentially hazardous dry erase markers. At the university level, scientific research utilizes a constant stream of materials and waste, sometimes toxic, much like medicine.

Medicine requires large inputs of immediately discarded materials during every doctor visit, every surgery, for every patient that sets foot into a medical care facility. Radioactive materials are common in science and medicine, and their hazardous waste remains for millennia. Medical waste is a scourge to the environment and to people. Pharmaceuticals are generated by extracting (sometimes stealing) precious natural resources from all over the world. At the end of their life cycles, excess pharmaceutical products may be excreted by humans after ingestion to enter waterways via sewage systems, or unused pharmaceuticals may be discarded and seep into waterways from non-secure waste streams. Either way, they can wreak havoc on ecosystems. Just to name a couple of the repercussions, we see antibiotic super-bacteria showing up in wildlife and the remnants of antidepressant drugs adversely affecting fish populations for generations.

These examples are merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of the myriad environmental issues within these supposedly sacrosanct industries - industries that we cannot imagine changing.

Of course, these examples are merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of the myriad environmental issues within these supposedly sacrosanct industries - industries that we cannot imagine changing. We presume that these industries cannot be scaled down (or even eliminated), as if many of our ailments could not be prevented, thus reducing the need for expensive end ecologically destructive medical interventions, or as if we must have high tech and high production for education, and entertainment. In fact, degrowth must occur in these and all industries.

I don’t mean to pick on Dean Baker, whose work I generally admire, because he is not unlike any other economist, politician, or most people, really - even some who study aspects of the environment. Academic disciplines and other careers have become so compartmentalized, so reductionist, that few people grasp the totality of our environmental concerns because few people examine them in a holistic context. There are no “goods” and services that now exist in the industrialized world that do not over-use natural resources to the point of extracting more from the earth than the earth can replenish. There are virtually no industries that do not leave non-renewable waste and/or contamination as an outcome of their production and use.

If it were indeed possible to have continued economic growth while protecting the environment, why wouldn’t industries have embarked on wholly sustainable ways of doing business years ago? Wouldn’t that have maximized efficiency and helped to eliminate he hassles of dealing with environmental regulations (most of which are wholly insufficient anyway), lawsuits, and constant antagonism from environmental advocates and activists? If business models that incorporated sustainable practices lead to the most growth and efficiency, why would business have not already adopted them universally? I think the answer is because corporations and investment bankers know that economic growth demands ecological exploitation, much like investors recognize (and admit in writing) that continued growth in the medical sector entails NOT curing or preventing disease, but maintaining chronic illness.

We can keep deluding ourselves that economic growth and technological innovation will save our planetary ecosystem from utter annihilation, but that presumption is not based on sound knowledge of history or science. Economic growth hasn’t even created the more equitable economic prosperity that it supposedly should (though we should know by now that assertion was simply a lie). Just because we have been programmed to think the economy is the most important system on earth, this erroneous notion will not stop the rapidly deteriorating ecological conditions on the planet.

Economics is a man-made invention, a “science” with “laws” that may be modified or discarded at our whim. It may operate based on certain principles that have been implemented and inherited and maintained, but ultimately, these constructions are arbitrary and alterable. Biology, chemistry, and physics are sciences whose natural laws are immutable. We may not fully comprehend all of laws of natural and physical sciences, but they will exist nonetheless, no matter how much we try to manipulate them. Until we prioritize these natural laws – more basically, ecology, over economy – and until we learn to think about and integrate our ecological limits, our ecological needs, and our ecological realities into all aspects of our lives, we will never even come close to a sustainable future. To be blunt, as long as economics always takes precedence, ecology will inevitably come back to bite us in the ass.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Kristine Mattis

Kristine Mattis

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the mad-dog general. Email: k_mattis@outlook.com

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