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The environment is the economy...stupid

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
April 11, 2001


Over the last two hundred years western civilization has been on a biological shopping spree, spending freely the capital needed to insure future generations. Why do we do this? What is enough? Last week, while standing in the rain on Highway 101 trying to keep the Green Party booth from joining the vendors fleeing the Encinitas street fair, these questions came to me.

For the most part humans evolved completely unattached to materials possessions. Free to move about the planet, we thrived consuming only what we needed and then moved on, living in balance with the biotic community. Humans lived. Humans died. No big deal. Coincidentally people still live and die, the only difference is the size of their appetites, and amount of toys needed to keep them entertained.

I have yet to understand the American belief system that dictates to it's adherents that environmental sustainability and economic well-being are mutually exclusive. Pardon the pun, but it just doesn't make sense. Separating the two may seem prudent, in some delusional way, but the fact remains without a functioning environment there would be no economy.

Every tool ever used to help build human culture had it's origins in the natural world. Ignoring the fundamental reality, that economies, whether they are based in gold, grain, cattle, or seashells, is bad for business. Regardless of what your mother told you, money does grow on trees. It's called paper. So why the disconnect?

Could it be that the truth is too hard a sell. Or is it that our species is just so shortsighted, so addicted to instant gratification, that little else matters. By failing to recognize the mere fact that human economies depend on the environment, we will continue to see restraint as a socialist plot, and stewardship as an affront to personal liberty.

First we should look at the language of our disconnect. Dead cows we call beef. Dead pigs, pork. Chickens, poultry. Dead trees we call lumber. Here in the coastal cities of San Diego's North County we have our own misnomers to keep us ignorantly bliss. Having dammed coastal estuaries, we now refer to them as lagoons and then spend millions, if not billions, of dollars trying to save lagoons that aren't.

Sadly, every environmental crisis being faced by humanity was created by man and his money being separated from ecological equation. As we clear cut the seas of every edible species we damn future generations to a diminished world. When we justify genetic engineering with feeding the hungry masses, instead of providing them resources that would allow those same people to feed themselves, we damn all humans to an overpopulated and weakened condition. Where's the profit in that.

Perhaps it's just that screwing up the environment is better for the economy than saving it. After all who ever got rich doing nothing. By allowing corporate interests to rape and pillage our planet they in turn enslave us to the process. Having been on this "not-so merry go-round" since the beginning of the industrial revolution, humans are being devoured by an appetite of their own making, unable to slow the beast's momentum.

A case in point is the ideas of seawalls being anything other then a short term economic solution. It should be noted that at no time is a sea wall to be considered environmental in design or philosophy. They are always an economic band-aid, a costly one at that. Sea walls do nothing but temporarily interrupt the flow of sand to beaches. Spending millions to protect the bad investment of an individual, at the expense of the many, is not the work of an intelligent primate.

To be fair, economists would remind us that building sea walls creates jobs. Politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, lawyers(both pro and con)truck drivers, builders, and biologists all benefit from sea wall construction. And as long as the house on the failing bluff stands, there will be more jobs created by the way of relators, gardeners, painters, carpet installers,  police, fire, and city services. And when the bluff finally takes the house and wall with it, at least we can rest in the knowledge that jobs were created. Amen.

The question is what happens when through our actions, and corresponding inaction, the environment no longer favors our existence. The ancient Incan civilization is thought to have collapsed under it's own weight. A classic case of too many people requiring to many resources. The same is said about the Anasazi, and the folks of Easter Island. Having withdrawn too much from the planetary ATM those cultures went belly up.

By the time western civilization bankrupts the system we will have exhausted all future capital in the process.

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