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March 14, 2008

Another environmentalist plans to destroy the economy

Ho-hum. Another day, another Ivy League dean with plans to destroy the economy.

James Gustave Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, explains why we need to control human activities to protect the environment. By doing what? Well, here's a hint: The title of his article is "The problem with capitalism."

Typically, when we're warned of a major environmental catastrophe, we aren't told how much it will cost to avoid. How many prophets of catastrophic climate change will divulge the economic and human costs to be incurred in what they see as an effective response? Pretty much no one does. Either the subject has never crossed their minds, or the costs will be so astronomical and the disruption to the lives we're used to leading will be so profound that it would detract from their prophecy.

So I give Dean Speth some credit for letting the cat out of the bag.

It turns out, he says, that capitalism works too well: "The capitalist operating system, whatever its shortcomings, is very good at generating growth."

Because even the poor are destroying the Earth.

Most basically, we know that environmental deterioration is driven by the economic activity of human beings. About half of today's world population lives in abject poverty or close to it, with per capita incomes of less than $2 per day. The struggle of the poor to survive creates a range of environmental impacts where the poor themselves are often the primary victims -- for example, the deterioration of arid and semi-arid lands due to the press of increasing numbers of people who have no other option.
But if the poor are not blameless, it's the rich who really are destroying the Earth.
But the much larger and more threatening impacts stem from the economic activity of those of us participating in the modern, increasingly prosperous world economy. This activity is consuming vast quantities of resources from the environment and returning to the environment vast quantities of waste products. The damages are already huge and are on a path to be ruinous in the future.
And what's to blame? Well, you know the answer already: Capitalism.
These features of capitalism, as they are constituted today, work together to produce an economic and political reality that is highly destructive of the environment. An unquestioning society-wide commitment to economic growth at almost any cost; enormous investment in technologies designed with little regard for the environment; powerful corporate interests whose overriding objective is to grow by generating profit, including profit from avoiding the environmental costs they create; markets that systematically fail to recognize environmental costs unless corrected by government; government that is subservient to corporate interests and the growth imperative; rampant consumerism spurred by a worshipping of novelty and by sophisticated advertising; economic activity so large in scale that its impacts alter the fundamental biophysical operations of the planet -- all combine to deliver an ever-growing world economy that is undermining the ability of the planet to sustain life.
Got that? We improve our lives but harm the environment. Better medicine and longer lives? Bad. Better hygiene and better health? Bad. Greater comfort? Bad. Increased ability to produce useful goods? Bad.

The solution for Dean Speth can be summed up in one phrase: "long-term solutions must seek transformative change in the key features of this contemporary capitalism."

This is the final line of his article, so we are left to wonder what changes he has in mind. Central control? Probably. Population reduction? Probably. And the result we can surely predict. Less innovation, less research and development of medicines and medical treatments, a stunted economy.

But the Earth will (by assumption) be happier. Which is far more important, anyway, isn't it?