Reflections on the economy-ecology paradox
In the 1960s, the inescapable logic of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock left an indelible mark on some TV viewers, including myself. “There are always alternatives,” he dead-panned in one episode, despite the fact that he and the starship crew were in the midst of a crisis that looked like certain doom.
Rachel Carson had just published “Silent Spring,” and started the environmental movement. Since then, the times have been a changin’ but they don’t seem to be a changin’ fast enough to put the brakes on the slow-motion ecological train wreck we appear to be the passengers on, and hear about with daily headlines.
In the 1970s, I was drawn to the study of ecology at the university level, and discovered that there are two sides to that rather ambivalent word. The pure side is a science concerned with living things and interactions with their environment.
The term ‘environment’ back then was just starting to be used like it is now. Instead, we talked about habitats, food chains, energy and nutrient cycles, and population dynamics.
As it turns out, I was also fascinated by the other side of the coin, ‘applied ecology,’ and what we now call environmentalism. I looked around, and got on the bandwagon.
Long story short, tree-huggers were not always embraced in the lofty halls of academia and reason. So we carried on with the cause in other ways, like marching on city hall to promote recycling for example, something at the time that was considered pure fantasy.
To Infinity… and Beyond!
Also in the 70s, a group of international thinkers published a ground-breaker titled “The Limits to Growth.” It was a bold critique of the conventional dogma of economics that evolved in the wake of the Second World War, that never-ending expansion of practically everything that would replace the war effort, and “keep the economy going.”
That “growth imperative” still drives the world’s economic models to this day. Go big, or go home they say — there is no alternative. Some still consider “Limits to Growth” pure folly.
Shortly thereafter, international whaling came to a welcome halt. Whales were so few in number they were no longer worth chasing. Then, the Atlantic cod fishery collapsed.
Other resource-based booms went bust, as they tend to do, many due to ecological limits being surpassed, and with them jobs and livelihoods. Apparently these are hard lessons to learn — why? The notions of “sustainable development” (whatever that is) or sustainable harvesting were yet to be adopted, or at least considered as an option.
On that, an economist will tell you that money in your bank account earning interest today is worth more than money you might receive in the future.
Inflation and depreciation will erode that yet-to-be realized income. Harvesting whales, cod, trees, whatever it may be, now, and turning them into cash before your equipment wears out and your workers demand higher wages, is simply good business.
Money, wisely invested, can grow much faster than trees, for example. Leaving a few whales to catch another day, is less attractive to investors and “the market” than harvesting all you can now to maximize profits.
Ecological “values,” such as clean air, pretty flowers or thriving wetlands — count for next to nothing in corporate boardrooms. Such is the capital-driven economic system we tenaciously cling to. Wealth equals cash, and that’s all that matters, it seems.
Fast forward 40-something years, and we are challenged by this bipolar debate more than ever. Jobs vs. environment. Shall we continue to strip-mine the tar sands and frack the ground for more black gold…or instead invest in renewables, demand reduction, electric vehicles, and solar roofs? Which pays-off faster? Do we cash in now and annihilate more farmland with monster-home subdivisions (ka-ching!)…or do we think, hmmm… where does food come from again…?
Is the objective of infinite growth, on a finite and now overcrowded and degraded planet, really our smartest option? Or is our train driver playing games on his new cell phone, as we hurtle towards a washed-out bridge? And just who is driving that train, by the way?
Tough questions for sure. I hope I can dish up some food for thought along the journey, and probably bring a bit home too (in a reusable container, hint hint). Let’s start with the proposition that there are always alternatives.