This morning I posted an entry to the National Journal Energy & Environment Expert blog. The topic was whether the United States can afford to spend money on environmental protection during a time of economic crisis. My answer is below:
It is, of course, entirely understandable that in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the beginning of the environmental movement in the early 1970s, people, when asked to choose between the environment and the economy, choose the economy. They are, with good reason, afraid — worried sick about whether they will have a job next week, will be able to pay their mortgage, their utility bill, their children’s tuition. The problem for the future of both Earth’s environment and its people is not with the answer, but with the question.
The media and pollsters thrive on exposing conflict, fault lines that produce drama in the headlines or in the executive summaries of the polls. The environment vs. economy choice is convenient but specious. If one asked the question differently – “which is more important, our ability to grow food to feed our families, to have safe air to breathe, enough clean water to drink, shelter from raging storms or the current level of the Dow Jones Industrial average?” — how many folks would choose the stock market?
The current economic crisis is all about our trying to live beyond our means, about trying to grow an economy based upon speculative values that were not real, not sustainable. And it is not sustainable to believe that the soon-to-be 9 billion humans on this Earth can survive on a speck of a planet hurtling through the emptiness of space without paying an immense amount of attention to the natural systems that make our lives possible.
The environment as a luxury? If the speculative bubble of our unsustainable use of Earth’s resources bursts, nature and people will suffer the collapse together.
Like it or not, between our numbers and the power of our technology, humans now have profound impacts on Earth’s natural systems. So what are the real questions we should be asking about the relationship of our stewardship of Earth’s finite resources and human well being in these difficult times? What kinds of real decisions are before us?
- Given that all the credible science says uncontrolled, human-induced climate change will have disastrous impacts on the U.S. economy and political stability across the world, how can we use conversion to a lower carbon economy as an engine of economic recovery without producing new kinds of adverse environmental impacts?
- With or without climate change, the United States and many other countries face water shortages that will cripple economic growth? How can we better conserve and recycle the use of water and change the management of dams to better balance human needs with the health of downstream environments? How can we protect and restore natural forests and wetlands to hold and cleanse water while providing habitat for many species?
- How can we best support the ability of American farmers and foresters to provide safe and abundant supplies of food, fuel and fiber while reducing the impacts of farming on water and other resources?
- And how can we sort out the competing uses for coastal waters so that we can restore the natural abilities of marshes and reefs to shield us from the impacts of storms while providing the habitat for the restoration of valuable fish stocks?
At every level from local to global, the natural environment produces real and quantifiable human and economic benefits. Our environment is completely intertwined with the rest of our economy and investments in energy technology and in restoring natural areas will produce both economic and ecological returns.
The real question we should be asking today is whether the current economic crisis and the impending crisis of a rapidly warming Earth will, finally, bring us to realize (or perhaps remember) that we must live within our means and that investments in our environment are part and parcel of investments in a strong and sustainable economy.