2008-09 Gathering of Voices

Economy and Environment

Blu Schwarzmiller

There are those that believe it is the right or purpose of man to wrangle his environment to suit his needs; or that it is by God’s will and by His protection we should not worry about the effects of society on our planet. We have not treated our fair planet as we should, and now live in a time of increasing uncertainty about the future of mankind. As our population grows at unprecedented rates, we see a greater strain on the resources necessary for life. According to the United States Census Bureau’s 2008 World Population figures, the human population is around 6.74 billion people, and growing at an exponential rate of 1.188% (CIA world fact book). Those 6.74 billion people depend on the earth's natural resources for life. The resources that provide us with the most basic of human needs; food, shelter, and air, are being depleted at an unprecedented rate. Many resources upon which we depend are not renewable, and can only be used once, including mineral ores and fossil fuels. Those resources that are renewable are being depleted at a rate faster than they can renew, and in the name of profit. The cause of this increasing rate of human consumption is the inherent assumptions of classical economic theory. In our gathering and production of resources, we are dramatically affecting the Earth and the systems by which life is maintained.

The earth keeps itself in a state of dynamic equilibrium, maintaining ideal conditions for life. Since life began roughly 4 aeons ago, the suns output has increased about 30%, yet the global climate has not changed, fluctuating plus or minus 2 degrees, keeping a constant ideal environment for life (Lovelock 21). Furthermore, for the past 3.5 aeons the earth has maintained a constant atmospheric gas ratio of 20% oxygen, 79% nitrogen and .03% carbon dioxide since the beginning of life (Lovelock 22). Recent scientific theory suggests that microbial and coccolithophoride life forms present worldwide in the oceans act as an active control system for atmospheric gasses and temperature, maintaining the aforementioned characteristics (Lovelock 43-45). Doing so creates the conditions that allow for the diversity of life we now enjoy, and are a part of. However, the outputs of our society are overloading the planet’s check systems.

In 2007, the International Panel for Climate Change, composed of thousands of scientists from dozens of nations worldwide, concluded "Both past and future anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will continue to contribute to warming and sea level rise for more than a millennium, due to the timescales required for removal of this gas from the atmosphere (IPCC)." Basically, humans have put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than can be broken down, and as carbon dioxide traps in solar energy we see an increase in temperature. These carbon dioxide outputs result from humans, specifically the burning of fossil fuels in the forms of oil, coal and natural gas. The known results of an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide are an increase in temperature on a global scale causing the exponentially increasing rate at which the polar ice caps are melting and ensuing rise in sea levels. However, global climate change is only a fraction of the problem, as we are disrupting countless other cycles and processes of the earth. Notably, we are now seeing the hypoxia, the loss of oxygen in a system, in the Gulf of Mexico from an overload of nitrogen, a result of fertilizers used across the Midwest carried downstream by the Mississippi (Withgott 175). An increase in nitrogen allows aquatic algae to grow much faster than nature intends, depleting the water of oxygen, thereby killing all other forms of life present in those waters.

The long term effects of this upset of the oceans dynamic equilibrium are still unclear. While we pollute the waters that first gave us life and maintain the aforementioned atmospheric balances, we cut down the forests that aid in the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, deplete the soils that grow our crops of their nutrients. Let us not forget that even a 2% shift in overall global temperature gave us the last ice age (Lovelock 61). Should oxygen levels decrease minutely, we lose the air we breathe. Conversely, a 1% increase in oxygen levels leads to a 70% increase in the chance of forest fires, and should oxygen levels increase from their current levels to above 35% all organic material on earth would simultaneously combust (Loveloch 27) By upsetting the dynamic equilibrium of our planet, we have put ourselves on the brink of a system's failure, in which drastic global changes could occur, brought about by the consumption and wastes of modern society.

As a species, it is time we start questioning why we continue to use fossil fuels if we know they are heating the earth, causing changes in the ecological processes upon which life is based? Why do we allow our population to ever increase, further straining the earth and adding to pollution? Why do we use non-renewable resources at an increasing rate? It is becoming clear that as a species, we may be our own undoing; the creativity and innovation of human kind so prized by society that led to our current technological achievements may have allowed us to exceed our resource base. Our lack of foresight stems from the economic theories upon which the overall global economy is based; and the subsequent assertion that humans are not subject to the laws of nature, or that they do not apply to us. Economy and environment form a paradox, for our economy is dependent upon the natural resources of the environment, yet depletes that same environment and harms the global ecosystem that supports the natural resources upon which we depend.

Current economics is based upon Adam Smith’s idea that when people are allowed to pursue their own economic self interest in a free market, it will benefit society as a whole (Withgott 38). Smith’s ideas provide the basis of free-market capitalism, an economic system in which resources are privately owned and traded. Furthermore, Smith noted that we are most concerned with that which directly affects us, and those close to us, reflecting anthropocentric worldviews. The ideas of Smith in tandem with the inherent anthropocentric worldviews led to the four assumptions underlying current economic theory, as identified by Jay Withgott and Scott Brennan, who say that resources are infinite or substitutable, that costs are and benefits are internal, that long term effects should be discounted, and that growth is good (41). To think otherwise in economics would limit growth and expansion, which is traditionally considered a negative effect. Furthermore, the anthropocentric worldview inherent in capitalism puts emphasis on the individual bettering themselves through economic means. Though these concepts and world view allowed for our rapid economic expansion, they are at the root of the aforementioned environmental issues.

The assumptions of economics no longer apply because the social context in which they were created is much different than today. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, Earth’s resources were virtually limitless, considering the relatively low population. At the time, civilization depended on natural processes to provide our basic needs; the sun to grow the food eaten, the grass consumed by the animals we ate, and to provide us with the natural fiber for our clothing. Industrialization, and the accompanying technological advances allowed for the ongoing exponential increase in population. Modern manufacturing techniques increase our ability to produce food and material goods, therefore allowing our population to continue growing. With every individual trying to better themselves within a system that puts its emphasis on material possessions and money, the Earth is exploited. Classical economic theory may apply to a population of one billion people, as in 1800, but not to today’s population of 6.74 billion.

In nature, a population is limited by its food source and will only expand until it can no longer feed itself. This forms a balance within the natural system. These natural limits are directly opposed to the limitless growth encouraged by current economic theory, which has led to constant economic and population growth since the eighteenth century. A constantly expanding economy always needs more workers. A constantly expanding work force always needs more food, more resources and more land. Yet this constant grow contradicts the basic principles of species expansion. Our species is still feeding itself, but only by exploiting our natural resources, and at a price. Already, the effects of constant growth are manifest on the anthropocentric level, in the poor living conditions of developing countries due to overpopulation. It is becoming apparent that an economy must be developed that mirrors the cyclic aspect of the natural world, one that fluctuates slightly yet overall maintains relatively stable, as opposed to our current economy that is expected to constantly grow.

The idea of limitless resources is also obsolete as the earth itself is a finite resource. The earth has a total area of 510,072,000 km2. 70.4% of the earth’s total surface is water (CIA). Of the remaining 29.2% (148,941,024 km2) of surface area, part is inhospitable by traditional means as it consists of deserts, mountains, or ice. According to the CIA's World Fact Book, only 10.57% of the world’s surface is arable, or suitable for growing crops (CIA). Considering those 6.74 billion people worldwide, the world is a very small place; the 12.5% of the planet not covered by water, ice, mountains or deserts (CIA) has much demand upon it. It is this 12.5% of the earth’s surface that produces the crops we eat, grows the timber we use, hosts the livestock we raise, and provides the habitat for humanity.

The notion that costs and benefits are internal is another cause of the major environmental issues facing us today. Economics uses a cost to benefit ratio to determine whether or not to do a transaction. For example, the cost of plowing, planting and watering a field is weighed against the expected profit from what is grown on that field. Together, these costs form the internal costs. Economics places emphasis on the cost to benefit ratio of producing and selling a product, not the basis of the resources necessary for production. Current economics does not put value in natural capital, defined as "the myriad of necessary and valuable resources and ecological processes that we rely on to produce our foods, products and services” (Miller 201 By ignoring the cost of natural capital in relation to its abundance and the time it takes to renew, short term costs are minimalized. This results in an externality, defined as “cost[s] or benefit[s] of a transaction that involves people other than the buyer or seller” (Withgott 42). Externalities can be things such as pollution and secondary effects such as global climate change, deforestation from over harvesting. The reality is that we are now paying for using our natural capital in an unsustainable manner, and paying with interest in the long term. It is universal law that an action has an equal and opposite reaction, and we have largely ignored this in our dealings with the environment.

When looking at natural processes, we see there is no waste. A forest has no waste; as trees grow, die and rot, they become the soil for the next generation. Everything works in a state of relative harmony, and though fluctuations in this harmony occur, there remains a state of general equilibrium. Nature forms a negative feedback loop, one in which there is no waste and entropy. All products of every system eventually return to that system, be it the soil cycle, carbon fixation cycle, nitrogen cycle or any other natural process. A positive feedback system does not stabilize a system, rather is drives it towards one extreme or another. Post industrialization, humans cause a positive feedback loop, in terms of pollution, depredation of resources and waste output being the flow through of our positive feedback. The initial examples, global climate change, hypoxia of the Gulf of Mexico, and deforestation can be viewed as outputs from positive feedback. These positive feedback cycles throw off the balance of our planets systems

It is clear that there is a need for a shift in the underlying economic principles backing capitalism, or destroy our own habitat. The answer may be a sustainable society, as defined by Tyler Miller, professor of Ecology and President of Earth Education and Research, "an environmentally sustainable society satisfies the basic needs of its people without degrading its natural resources and thereby preventing current and future generations of humans and other species from not meeting their basic needs." This society would give full value to natural capital and look at the long term effects of actions. An environmentally sustainable economy would be the root of a sustainable society. Such an economy would not be expected to constantly grow, rather it would fluctuate slightly but remain level overall. This economy would have to operate on a global scale to be effective, and have global benefits. If, for example, China and India, who compose roughly half the world’s population, were to not take part in a sustainable economy these problems would go on. A sustainable economy would take into account the true cost of natural capital and would hold industry accountable for its use of resources and any negative effects caused by production.

Furthermore, for a new sustainable economy to work it is necessary for a shift in the dominant worldview of the human population from anthropocentric to ecocentric; from being concerned about oneself and those close to us to being concerned with our effects on the planet as a whole. In doing so, we would be protecting the future of mankind, providing habitat for future generations. In anthropocentric terms, we all want our children, their children and their children’s children to be able to enjoy the diversity of life we do now. For that to be possible, action must be taken on the individual, governmental and global levels. It seems as though this is happening, with the current attention being paid to the environment and our impacts upon it. Most importantly, we must live within the dynamic equilibrium of our planet to remain a part of it. It may well be that us living in harmony with our environment is the final step in the evolutionary process.

Works Cited

"CIA - The World Factbook -- World." Welcome to the CIA Web Site &mdash; Central Intelligence Agency. 21 Mar. 2009 <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/print/xx.html>.

"IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Working Group I Report "The Physical Science Basis"" IPCC - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 21 Mar. 2009 <http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/ar4-syr.htm>.

Lovelock, James. Gaia: a new look at life on earth. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford university press, 1979.

Miller, G. Tyler. "Sustainability." Living in the environment principles, connections, and solutions. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 2002.

Withgott, Jay, and Scott Brennan. "Environment." Environment: the science behind the story. 3rd ed. San francisco, ca: Pearson education, 2008. 6.

> Return to Top