Have you ever noticed that economics dominates our news? All day long we hear reports on the Dow and NASDAQ. There are business sections of newspapers. Television and radio news includes market reports, financial reports, and money reports. Segments of major news programs are dedicated to economics and finance. We even have individual news programs and networks solely devoted to the discussion of money matters. Indeed, economics permeates the discourse on nearly every matter presented to the public. Stories may cover politics, human affairs, entertainment, art, health, and science, but in the end most foundationally concern money.
Stories may cover politics, human affairs, entertainment, art, health, and science, but in the end most foundationally concern money.
Now, imagine if all of that time and attention were paid to issues related to the environment, i.e., ecology. Imagine news segments, news programs, and news channels that put the crux of our lives in the context of the climate change, resource use, toxic contamination, pollution, and the plight of other species rather than the economy. Perhaps we might have a great deal more knowledge about exactly what our way of life is doing to our own health and the health of the global ecosystem. Perhaps we might be more concerned by the seemingly innocuous things we do everyday that detrimentally affect ourselves and our global life support system. Perhaps we’d actually be able to say that we truly have a fourth estate dedicated to benefiting people and planet rather than corporate entities and Wall Street.
Those who discuss money matters in the mainstream press tend to be appallingly out of touch with the economic realities of the majority of Americans. Economists extol the virtues of spending for the sake of economic growth, then admonish the people whose atrociously (in a just world, criminally) low wages barely allow them to make a living, let alone allow for extraneous purchases. Real estate market growth is touted as advantageous, while much of the American population can no longer afford rent in most major cities, to say nothing of affording a mortgage.
But even the more enlightened economists rarely include environmental concerns in their economic analyses. There is a glaring disconnect between the reality of our environmental predicament and our constant fixation with economics (particularly in the consumer realm). As a general rule, production and consumption are viewed as inevitable and beneficial, when both are wholly environmentally unsustainable. Exploitation of the environment through over-extraction of resources and toxic pollution are externalities that are rarely discussed in the context of “the market” or economic growth. Frankly, this omission of the ecological repercussion of economic endeavors renders most economic analysis moot. At this point in time, it is clear to anyone remotely schooled in natural science that our global ecosystem is on the decline, to put it mildly. In the broadest sense, toxic substances in our air, water, and products, overuse of resources, pollution, and fossil-fuel generated climate change comprise the main issues that imperil life on the planet. Much of what economists predict and propose would have very little – or at least, much less – relevance if they were to fully incorporate these environmental realities into their equations, which is probably why they do not.
Much of what economists predict and propose would have very little – or at least, much less – relevance if they were to fully incorporate these environmental realities into their equations, which is probably why they do not.
Take this recent article by Dean Baker that suggests economic growth can continue while tending to our environmental concerns. While the author clearly means well, his cursory knowledge of our concurrent environmental emergencies shines through (and continues to in his follow-up piece). His focus is on the impact of economic changes (potentially, degrowth of the economy) that might occur as a result of addressing the climate crisis, but he fails to understand that there is so much more that needs to be addressed other than carbon emissions in order to generate a sustainable global ecosystem. It seems clear that despite the fact that those in the environmental realm have been studying and debating degrowth for decades, the concept is new to him, or he has not delved into the history of the subject deeply. Moreover, unlike environmental advocates and interdisciplinary environmental scholars, he has not thought comprehensively about the enormity of our environmental problems, which is not surprising, since it is not his field.
He concludes that industries like software, entertainment, education, and medicine will continue growing the economy in a sustainable fashion, even if other fields must shrink economically to protect the environment. He assumes it is a necessary for society for these aforementioned fields to advance – a very questionable assumption – or that they are industries that can grow sustainably. Yet, all of those disciplines, at least as they currently exist, require tremendous use of non-renewable, non-biodegradable, sometimes toxic resources, generate tremendous amounts of waste, and are not at all sustainable in their current forms. Therefore, their role in preserving economic growth, growth which Baker suggests is unavoidable, is tenuous, to say the least.
In order to be sustainable, all inputs and outputs need to renewable, generating zero waste. All it takes is a superficial examination of the above-mentioned industries to understand that none of them, much like all industries on earth, are currently sustainable in any manner.
Software is inextricably tied to devices, all of which are created to have limited life-spans and to be continually replaced (known in the business world as “planned obsolescence”). Technological devices transport the ecological and health harms of production (mining for rare earth and other materials) and end-of-life elimination (e-waste) to the most vulnerable and exploited people on the planet.