9 Apr 2009

Economy vs. Environment 2

My prior post with this title had a discussion of living beyond our means. A few days ago, I reflected on the need to allow the economy to re-adjust to steady state.

This post is about the actual conflict between the economy and environment, and particularly the environmentalists' habit of saying NO to every new project, even if the new project will retire an older, polluting project. The WSJ gives this example:
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is determined to publicize just how much environmental opposition derails all kinds of energy projects—including renewable energy. The Chamber just launched a new website, “Project No Project,” that aims to chronicle runaway NIMBYism across the U.S.


The Chamber’s point is that for all the talk of embracing clean energy as an alternative to dirtier old energy sources, plenty of green angst is directed at precisely the things—like new transmission lines—that would bring clean energy closer to reality.
The New York Times jumps in with coverage of the debate AMONG enviros:
As the Obama administration puts development of geothermal, wind and solar power on a fast track, the environmental movement finds itself torn between fighting climate change and a passion for saving special places.
Here's another example of stopping something new that's an improvement on the old:
So why do some environmentalists object to desalination? I've concluded it's out of a kind of wishful thinking: If only everyone were to conserve, if the population could stay at current levels, if we could find a solution that has no environmental impacts -- if, if, if. In this respect, environmental advocates are behaving no differently from residents who object to Orange County's "toilet-to-tap" project -- though they have no qualms about drinking recycled wastewater from the Colorado River. Perhaps all of us prefer to ignore the realities of difficult choices in the belief that somewhere a perfect solution exists.
I am guessing that the environmental justice movement ("we are tired of putting pollution where poor people live") will also have something to say about this. Since poor people often live on cheap land, they often end up with industrial projects. (Notice how the windmills are still not erected off Cape Cod.)

Gallup has been asking about this tension for many years. This year is the first time that Americans say that the economy takes precedence over the environment, and here's the picture!
Note that there is a tie between environment and energy. On both questions, republicans tend to favor the economy, and democrats tend to favor the environment.

As an environmental economist, I agree that there is a tension between economic GROWTH and the environment. Under current form (using fossil fuels, polluting without taxes, exploiting greenfield sites, harvesting natural resources, etc.), it's hard to see any difference.

A sustainable economy would be MUCH different. It would not only be smaller (less consumption, less pollution), but also contain fewer goodies (cars, big screen TVs, houses, meat, kids, etc.) Who's interested in that?

Bottom Line: The world is full of trade-offs, and now we are facing them. If we favor the economy, our environment will suffer (and may bite us on the ass). If we favor the environment, our economy will suffer (and may lower the standard of living). Hey -- is Solomon around here somewhere?


  1. Back when I was young, I bought a small parcel of land with water rights in a desert. I brought the water in by gravity flow, planted CO blue spruce, and spread the limited water to create a nice pasture environment complete with organic gardens and a green house made out of salvaged windows and used lumber.

    Other than pumping a bit of water from the well for domestic use, the place was totally self sufficient. I learned later that what I had created was a rather perfect example of holistic resource management. The few head of livestock were rotated around to keep them on good feed and spreading their own waste rather than buying commercial fertilizer.

    Those who counted voted on my efforts with their feet. 44 wild turkey, a fox family, raccoons and small deer herd called the place home in the middle of a desert. My seedling blue spruce finally reached 25 feet and most of the area's birds raised their families in the baughs.

    Point being, that this sustainable concept with a million acre feet of fresh water supplied without power and existing storage facilities could do the same for a great deal of CA & NV.

    Oh well, maybe in my next life ...

    WaterSource retired water rights analyst. waterrdw@yahoo.com

    P.S. I also limited my children to two, my rabbits to 20, cows to 2 and chickens to 30. Nobody went without ...

  2. Long-term, sound environmental decisions are essential to sound economies. Problem is, it takes money to be able to afford to make intelligent long term choices. If by "adjusting to steady-state" you mean low to zero real GDP growth (which would certainly relieve a lot of short term pressure on our resources) the question of funding our welfare state-even assuming no new initiatives-- becomes extremely problematic, as does funding many environmental initiatives. I think we can continue to see tremendous growth in productivity if we have an open mind about technology (GMO, nuclear, vaccinations...) Producing more from the same amount of input produces more wealth, and by definition conserves resources. Simple conservation per-se may build character, but leaves too many other people out in the cold. They have little, and will not thank us for reducing our consumption and output; it feeds them, literally and commercially.
    I have long found it sad how many young people who self-identify as environmentalists are fretful, reactionary beings, ashamed of their gifts and intolerant of new ideas.

  3. "So why do some environmentalists object to desalination?" The enviros that I know object to desalinization in San Diego because it takes far too much energy and it will kill off fish and destroy large amounts of larvae. Agencies and jurisdictions have focused on desalinization and have ignored Potable Reuse (Toilet to tap), which takes far less energy and could benefit surface water quality.

  4. @Anon -- the Carlsbad plant does have those problems, and higher prices/water markets would be much better to ending "shortage". If you are interested in better desal technology (energy and fish), then check out this post on DXV technologies.


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