More Money But a Sicker Planet?

Economy More Important Than EnvironmentYes, many people in our country are still suffering from money woes, but our economy does seem to be improving. The April Consumer Confidence Index was up, and Wall Street’s S&P 500 reached record highs in early May. But perhaps all this speculation about more or less money and talk of whatever else is in the news, including the Boston Marathon killings, is diverting us from an even more important concern—the environment.

A March 2013 U. S. Gallup poll asked the question “With which of these statements about the environment and the economy do you most agree:

      • protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth or
      • economic growth should be given priority even if the environment suffers to some extent?”

By a 48 to 43 percent margin, more Americans opted for economic growth. By varying margins, Americans have made the same choice since they began to feel the effects of the Great Recession in late 2008.

But in four Gallup polls in the early and mid 1990s and then in every year from 1997 to early 2008, the Americans surveyed placed the environment first, although the margin of support was less in most of the George W. Bush presidency as compared to that of Bill Clinton. The World Values Surveys dealing with the 1990s discovered that the type of values increasingly found in the most industrialized and prosperous countries of the world “give priority to environmental protection and cultural issues, even when these goals conflict with maximizing economic growth.”

Perhaps, however, it should not surprise us that once our economy took a serious downturn more people started to deemphasize environmental concerns. Finding a job, paying your mortgage, providing adequate meals for your family, all seem more important, certainly more pressing, than environmental debates about global warming, fracking, and the Keystone Pipeline. And people understand  their need for more money, while all these environmental debates seem more complicated. Fox News tells you one thing, Jon Stewart or The New York Times the opposite. Who is one to believe? And how many really have the time, or at least want to take it, to sort through all the info available, even if one could figure out what was reliable and what was just garbage? Meanwhile, we’ve got all our real pressing money problems, and for relief from all our anxieties we’ve got plenty of sports and other entertainment we can access on an ever-increasing number of devices.

Surprisingly, however, it does not seem to be the poor who are deemphasizing environmental concerns the most. The Gallup 2013 survey indicated that Republicans by a 68 to 27 percent majority favor economic growth over the environment, as do men age 50 and over by a 55 to 37 percent margin. Meanwhile, poverty statistics indicate that minorities and single women with children, both groups much more Democratic than Republican, are much poorer on average than are whites and married couples. But regardless of who is prioritizing economic growth over the environment, we as a nation are making the wrong choice.

Regarding economic growth, as long ago as 1973, in his book Small Is Beautiful, economist E. F. Schumacher pointed out the dangers of overemphasizing it: “We find, therefore, that the idea of unlimited economic growth . . . needs to be seriously questioned on at least two counts: the availability of basic resources and, alternatively or additionally, the capacity of the environment to cope with the degree of interference implied.” More recently, Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has stressed a similar viewpoint: taking pro-environmental actions like “reducing air, water, and noise pollution . . . might lower GDP growth” but improve national wellbeing.

Regarding the environment, a recent article on the History News Network blog by Tom Engelhardt indicates why we are wrong in our recent trend of deemphasizing it. After expressing his disappointment that more people didn’t join with him and others in February, 2013 in a Washington, DC protest “which focused on stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline,” he writes:

While protesting that Sunday, I noted one slogan on a number of hand-made signs that struck me as the most pointed (and poignant) of the march: “There is no planet B.” It seemed to sum up what was potentially at stake: a planet to live reasonably comfortably on. You really can’t get much more basic than that, which is why hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, should have been out in the streets demanding that our leaders begin to attend to climate change before it’s quite literally too late.

After all, to my mind, climate change, global warming, extreme weather—call it what you will—is the obvious deal-breaker in human, if not planetary, history. Everything but nuclear catastrophe pales by comparison, no matter the disaster.

In a 2008 book, I said something similar when I stressed that how we deal with nuclear materials and the environment will be two major determinants in judging our global progress. In the five years since then, our environmental problems have just worsened. Our planet has got sicker—see Engelhardt’s article for some details. Climate change is by far our most serious environmental concern, but it is not our only one.

On May 6, 2013, NBC News had a segment on how a bee shortage is threatening our farmlands. A month and a half earlier, a New York Times story declared that “a mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.” The article also cited “growing evidence that a powerful new class of pesticides” was at least partly responsible for the bee decline.

This sounded alarmingly familiar, and sure enough two years earlier a similar warning about declining honeybees had been voiced—and I had even mentioned it in an environmental essay. In that piece I furnished a quote attributed to Einstein:  “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” I also mentioned a March 2011 UN report that stated “Losses of honey bee colonies since 2004 has left North America with fewer managed pollinators than at any time in the last 50 years. In this region, honey bees pollinate nearly 95 kinds of fruits such as almonds, avocados, cranberries and apples, as well as crops like soybeans. In 2000, the value of crops pollinated by bees was estimated at US$ 14.6 billion in the USA alone.” The report also cited pesticides and other environmental factors which contributed to the vanishing bees.

But as important as the issue had seemed to me in April 2011, I had forgotten about it until the stories of the last few months appeared. And my problem is your problem: we tend to forget or marginalize environmental problems while putting to the forefront more immediate concerns like money or whatever stories our media tells us are most important, whether they be about the recent antics of North Korea’s Kim Jong U, or the Boston Marathon explosions, or (as in 2009) the death of some big celebrity like Michael Jackson.

But we marginalize at our own peril, or more likely at the peril of our children and grandchildren. My wife and I have five of the latter, ages 10 to 2. I would imagine that many grandparents who can afford it have contributed to 529 College Savings Plans for their grandkids, or at least considered it. But to my fellow men age 50 and over, especially to those who by that 55 to 37 margin considered economic growth more important than the environment, I would argue that leaving your grandchildren an environmentally-sound planet is more important than any 529 help or other economic aid you might be able to provide.

walter moss

Walter Moss

And to one man just a little over 50 who as of yet has no grandchildren, President Barack Obama, I would also suggest that he needs to rev up his passion for, and prioritize more, environmental causes. Does he really wish history to record that during his two-term presidency the United States made little progress in addressing some of the major environmental challenges of the early twenty-first century?  Certainly, Republicans deserve much of the blame, but we Democrats, including the president, could have done more, and should do so in the days ahead.

Walter G. Moss

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

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  1. […] of the Honeybee,” narrated by Berry admirer, environmentalist Bill McKibben. (See here and here for two of my earlier essays discussing this problem and how serious it is). Finally, Moyers ended […]

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