Science Matters – Harming the environment is bad for the economy

Here’s your weekly Science Matters column by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola.

Harming the environment is bad for the economy

We often point out that ecology and economy have the same root, from the Greek oikos, meaning “home”. Ecology is the study of home and economics is its management. But many people still insist on treating them as two separate, often incompatible, processes.

At its most absurd, the argument is that we simply can’t afford to protect the environment – that the costs will be so high as to ruin the economy. But if you don’t take care of your home, it will eventually become uninhabitable, and where’s the economic justification for that?

Others argue that the economic advantages of some activities outweigh the environmental disadvantages. This, too, is an absurd argument. A recent posting on the website Grist.org points to a number of studies and articles showing that many of these activities are not even beneficial from an economic standpoint.

Take coal mining. Research from West Virginia University found that “coal mining costs Appalachians five times more in early deaths as the industry provides to the region in jobs, taxes and other economic benefits.” And, according to Grist, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development found that “the coal industry takes $115 million more from Kentucky’s state government annually in services and programs than it contributes in taxes.”

The website also refers to a peer-reviewed study in the journal Science that concluded logging in Brazil’s rainforests offered only short-term gains in income, life-expectancy, and literacy, but that the gains disappear over the long term “leaving deforested municipalities just as poor as those that preserved their forests.”

Yet another study found that all the big three U.S. automakers need to do to become profitable and to compete with Japanese car manufacturers is to meet new government-mandated fuel economy standards.

We recently noted in this column that bear-watching can be more profitable than bear-hunting, and the Grist article likewise notes that whale-watching is far more profitable than killing whales.

Often the problem is not so much with resource exploitation itself, but rather with the way we exploit our resources, and the reasons for the exploitation. With CEOs looking at quarterly results and politicians looking at three- or four-year terms of office, the incentives for long-range thinking are not always clear.

One of the most horrendous examples of this worm’s-eye view can be seen in Canada’s tar sands. As author Andrew Nikiforuk argues in his award-winning book Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, this resource could be used wisely to “fund Canada’s transition to a low-carbon economy.” Instead, industrial interests and the Alberta and federal governments are hell-bent on full-scale liquidation. And so we will end up with some short-term profits and a seemingly healthy economy in exchange for massive environmental damage and the rapid depletion of a resource that may still be necessary for some time to come – along with the negative economic consequences of all that.

Part of the problem lies in the real reason for much of our resource exploitation and industrial activity. A lot of it is done not out of necessity but out of a desire for a relatively small number of people to make lots of money quickly. And when the money is rolling in and jobs are being created, the politicians who foster the activities look good.

We may need fossil fuels, at least for now, but do we really need them so that one or two people can propel themselves to the grocery store in a massive SUV made from tonnes of metal?

We also see, not surprisingly, that the dinosaurs of the fossil fuel and other industries will go to great lengths to protect their interests. If that means spreading misinformation and outright lies about the consequences of their industries, well so be it.

And so, even though the scientific proof for human-caused global warming is undeniable, we have the coal and oil industries funding massive campaigns to cast doubt on the science and we have politicians implying that the world’s scientists are involved in some sinister plot – all so we can continue to rely on diminishing supplies of polluting fuels instead of creating jobs and wealth through a greener economy that may save us from catastrophe.

We need only to look at recent events in the United States to see that the people standing in the way of progress on the environment are often just as ignorant about the economy.

Science Matters has been running weekly since 1999. To read past columns, please visit www.davidsuzuki.org/science_matters/.

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