28 March 2009

Economy vs. Environment

This piece from the New Yorker is BRILLIANT:
The world’s financial and energy crises are connected, and they are similar because credit and fossil fuels are forms of leverage: oil, coal, and natural gas are multipliers of labor in much the same way that credit is a multiplier of wealth. Human history is the history of our ascent up what the naturalist Loren Eiseley called “the heat ladder”: coal bested firewood as an amplifier of productivity, and oil and natural gas bested coal. Fossil fuels have enabled us to leverage the strength of our bodies, and we are borrowing against the world’s dwindling store of inexpensive energy in the same way that we borrowed against the illusory equity in our homes.


The environmental benefits of economic decline, though real, are fragile, because they are vulnerable to intervention by governments, which, understandably, want to put people back to work and get them buying non-necessities again—through programs intended to revive ordinary consumer spending (which has a big carbon footprint), and through public-investment projects to build new roads and airports (ditto). Our best intentions regarding conservation and carbon reduction inevitably run up against the realities of foreclosure and bankruptcy and unemployment. How do we persuade people to drive less—an environmental necessity—while also encouraging them to revive our staggering economy by buying new cars?

The popular answer—switch to hybrids—leaves the fundamental problem unaddressed. Increasing the fuel efficiency of a car is mathematically indistinguishable from lowering the price of its fuel...
Read the WHOLE thing (2 pp) -- it's the best short description of the econ-enviro tension that I've read recently.

Bottom Line: The only way we can save the environment is by living sustainably, i.e., using resources (renewable and non-renewable) at a pace FAR BELOW current consumption rates.


  1. David: Does living sustainably mean "run up against the realities of foreclosure and bankruptcy and unemployment"?

  2. It is good to see Loren Eiseley cited in the New Yorker story. Reminds one of his notable quote: “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

  3. @FC -- anyone living sustainably would NOT end up in foreclosure (unemployment, perhaps, but that's temporary...)


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