1/2/09

New Year: New Economy

The new year is here and hopefully with it a new attitude towards the environment. Some important end-of-the-year news items reiterate why reducing our environmental impact is a necessity.

Discover magazine put out a list of the top 100 science stories of the year. "Slime Is Turning the Seas Into Dead Zones" came in at #4. It's a terrifying and complicated problem involving overfishing, global warming and fertilizer runoff:

The Chesapeake Bay is a prominent victim of this devilish synergy. Giant oyster reefs there have long since been harvested, as have the menhaden. Scallop and clam fisheries have also collapsed, in part because the overfishing of sharks has set off a population explosion of rays, which eat mollusks. The mollusks and menhaden were the bay’s filters, cleaning its waters of microscopic plants called phytoplankton. Now fertilizer runoff from fields and lawns and excrement from pig and chicken farms are causing the plants to proliferate. So is the warming of the water.


As excess plant matter sinks to the seafloor, microbes rot it and suck oxygen out of the water in the process. The hypoxia suffocates seafloor animals.
The Economist recently likened climate change to an asteroid hurtling towards the earth. The article also discusses one of the most interesting ideas for combating climate change: paying poor nations not to destroy their forests. The cost of such a plan would be relatively low, especially when compared to the idiotic, technocentric ideas that have so far been floated.

It is promising that President-elect Obama has proposed that greener energy be a part of any economic stimulus package, but incremental improvements will only take us so far. Given the scope and urgency of the situation, a more fundamental change is necessary.

Many reports on the current economic crisis emphasize that consumer spending is down and that consumption must resume at a pre-recession pace for the economy to restore its health; NPR's Marketplace daily admonishes us for not buying enough. While nursing the sick economy back to health is certainly important, perhaps we should consider the environmental impact that all of that consumer spending has before we implore everyone to go shopping again. As Jonathan Rowe testified to Congress, it's crazy to measure the economy only in terms of how much money moves around. Without measuring what resources were expended in the process or even how the money itself was spent, we have an incomplete, and therefore inaccurate, picture of the economy. He continues:
...the national accounts leave out a crucial dimension of the economy–the part that exists outside the realm of monetary exchange. This segment includes both the ecosystem and the social system–the life-supporting functions of the oceans and atmosphere, for example, and work within families and communities that is not done for money. So when the monetized economy displaces these elements–as when both parents have to work, or when forest clearing eliminates the cleansing function of trees–the losses are not subtracted against the market gain.
If the consumer economy is broken, don't fix it. Instead, we should be spending our energy (and our money) generating new ideas about how to create wealth in a way that is less environmentally destructive. Relying on people to buy cheap, disposable goods shipped from great distances is simply not sustainable. And, as Rowe points out, it's also unrealistic. The real costs--dead oceans, no ice caps, deforestation--far outweigh the profits.

In the future, we'll need to have our ears to the ground (and eyes on the internet) for any ideas that reduce our energy consumption or reuse the waste we've already created. We need a lot more solutions like this:

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