Economic Growth and the Environment

I get nervous when environmentalism is misinformed as it relates to economic growth. Here's a blurb from the e-newsletter of a local environmental group that shall remain nameless: "The good news: U.S. carbon emissions fall by most since '82. Looks like tightening our belts to combat a bad economy and through-the-roof gas prices really helped. Will we continue when things start to look brighter?"

Um, I'm pretty sure that through-the-roof gas prices, which took place in 2007, while they led to less driving, did not lead to heavy decreases in carbon emissions, since the economy was still growing at that point. And I'm pretty sure that carbon emissions went down in 2008 because the economy was in the tank, not because we tightened our belts in response.

The story this blurb references gets it right: "This isn't a big shock given last year's economic downturn," said Frank O'Donnell, head of Clean Air Watch. "The real issue going forward is how to make sure emissions go down as the economy starts growing again . . . . We don't want a sick economy to be the solution to a sick planet."

Amen to that. Perhaps there are some radical environmentalists out there who really do want to solve our carbon emissions problem by slashing business activity by 90 percent. As for me, the real challenge will be to make sure that we can achieve healthy economic growth in ways that are as sustainable as possible.

Not that I want to pit economic growth against environmental impact. Rather, how can we have both, or at the very least not count on crippling our global economy. For it's economic growth that lifts people in developing nations out of debilitating poverty and allows families, communities, and nations to develop reasonable responses to a warming planet and scarcer natural resources. And it's environmental stewardship that seeks the long-term welfare of the planet, for the aesthetic beauty it will offer and the life-sustaining functions it will perform, for generations to come.

In other words, for the sake of the quality of life of us humans, and the protection of the planet on which we all dwell, we have to figure out ways to pursue both at the same time. So as for now, I'm not going to cheer a headline that says "U.S. carbon emissions fall" until it is accompanied by another headline that says "Global economy on the rise."
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