IGNORANCE & CONSUMPTION: THE BIOPHYSICS OF SUSTAINABILITY
In Consuming the Earth: The Biophysics of Sustainability William Rees declares, “that much of economics is, or should be, human ecology” (382). Rees outlines where ecologists and economists differ and where they agree. He mentions the hidden dimensions of consumption, which are; (1) growing the economy destroys nature and (2) the invisible foot of the economy (carbon emissions). The paper ends with his comparison of the economy to a parasite. I enjoy being humored by this example and tend to agree with it.
Rees states, “The economy is that set of activities and relationships by which human beings acquire, process, and distribute material necessities and wants of life” (382). Economists and their analysis determine how well we are doing managing these interactions. The problem herein is that “most economic analyses are money-based and totally ignore both physical reality and the behavioral dynamics of ecosystems” (382). Why is this a problem? Consider ecology to be a subset of the study of human interaction, much like economics, but encompassing the ecosystem.
When you leave out huge portions of an equation, gross miscalculations are the final result. Economists disregard the role that the environment plays in the economy. In No Middle Way on the Environment: A Response to Sagoff Ehrlich, Daily, Daily, Myers, and Salzman point out, “Ecosystem services are worth trillions of dollars annually, but since they are not traded in economic markets, they do not carry prices” (374). Arguing that the ecosystem is worth trillions of dollars is not an exaggeration, by any means. After a failed two-hundred million dollar environmental experiment, Biosphere 2, it was clearly visible to scientists that we need the “Natural ecosystems [to] perform critical life-support services…” (374).
For the Western economic paradigm, centrally driven by monetary means (i.e. consumption), to evolve it’s vital we help people in positions of power (an induced presumption from reading Rees’ article) to understand how we relate to the world; because their decisions affect all of us. Marti Kheel explains in the article, From Heroic to Holistic Ethics: The Ecofeminist Challenge, why it is important for us to contemplate our relationship with the natural world. She writes, “Before we can change the current destructive relation to nature, we must, therefore, understand the world view upon which this relation rests” (200).
Kheel advocates for the promotion of an ethics of care. She shares a self-constructed view of the future, believing we will call this time period (our eradication of nature) the “Age of Treason.“ Kheel remarks, “During this time, men came to fear nature and revolted against the earlier matriarchal societies which had lived in harmony with the natural world as we do now” (211). I believe the view she contrived will prove to be accurate. As climate change creates more environmental obstacles for the human race we will be more reflective upon our previous decisions. We’ll look back on the generations that preceded us in sheer disappointment, anger, and helplessness. What will we be able to do by that point? What can we do now? Chris Cuomo examines Kheel’s crusade for an ethics of care in Considering the Problems in Ecofeminism.
Cuomo contends that the ecofeminist ideology has been “ used too simplistically by a number of ecological feminist writers…” (140). In her analysis, she notes, “[Although] Careful argumentation is important,” “Much of the work that I criticize… evidences clear political and personal commitment to uncovering at least some of the connections between women’s oppression and the devastation of the planet…” (140). Evidence is the key to any argument. A lawyer would not enter into a courtroom proclaiming his client’s innocence based upon him being a good man, or saying, “God spoke to me of his innocence!” Cuomo is trying to convey that much of what has been written for ecofeminism, is based in spirituality. This is why Rees is so adamant in explaining his carbon data; he wants to back his claims with evidence.
William Rees believes a major factor for our destruction of nature is related to “All our toys and tools, factories and infrastructure…” (383). This touches on pollution and Mark Sagoff’s claims that we are not running out of raw materials. Even if technology does continue to advance exponentially and solves our problems (as Sagoff claims), we still must account for all of the “goodies” we’ve made along the way. The pollution we’ve put into the biosphere during the manufacturing of our products, combined with the pollutants we will continue to excrete with their upkeep and use, must be dealt with; if we have any hope of shifting toward a sustainable path of interaction with Mother Earth.
Sagoff’s critics and Rees acknowledge that economic growth dissipates the natural environment. Rees’ study of the biosphere, in the Lower Fraser Basin of Canada, confirms the detrimental impact we have on the environment, from our release of carbon emissions. The Lower Fraser economy grew to be one of the most profitable economies in the world but the carbon “data highlight the physical dimensions of (industrial) economic reality that are completely hidden from conventional monetary analysis” (384). The area became economically profitable through industrialization. The pollution and massive population increase opened the gateway for an invisible carbon footprint. The carbon devastated local ecosystems and the biosphere of the world as a whole. Sagoff’s critics point out, “The winds carry no passports” (377).
Rees’ solutions to our environmentally destructive practices include “[the goal] of ecological economics is to reconstruct economics on a firm foundation of theory governing physical relationships and material transformation in nature” (382). The problem is that he does not offer real solutions as to how we would go about making these changes. He affirms the problems we have, realizes our future prognosis for sustainability as bleak, and suggests we clearly understand the consumption patterns that we are transfixed in (as consumers) now. Our consumption habits are not sustainable. Moving forward necessitates properly diagnosing what has led to our current environmental conundrum. We must aim to look at the questions that deal with how to properly measure our relationship with Mother Earth and keep our way of life in balance with her.
It’s natural to have vulnerability in one’s arguments, as Rees does. When determining the carbon release for his study of the Lower Fraser Basin, he notes that, “A new tool I have developed, with my students, ecological footprint analysis, shows the average…” (385). He does not provide specific evidence as to how this formula (aka “tool”) works. It must therefore be considered highly questionable data. However, I am satisfied with the explanation he gives comparing the economy to a parasite; it’s brilliant.
I view economics in precisely the same manner as Rees. The environment takes a backseat whenever (a majority of the time) moneymaking opportunities for corporations or individuals become involved. The most depressing part of Rees’ argument seems to be holding true with my personal research and opinions. Rees writes (speaking of entropic degradation of the environment), “eventually [the degradation] affecting everyone more or less simultaneously (as is happening with ozone depletion)” (386). According to recent studies published on Wired and CNN’s websites, the ozone layer over the Arctic, has depleted forty percent over the previous three-month time span. I’ll repeat that for arguments sake, forty percent!! I would hope (and on this matter, pray) that number would persuade those opposed to the idea of climate change that we are indeed choking our biosphere to death.
The more likely scenario is that we’ll continue polluting our environment and incrementally make worthless, in the grand scheme of things, policy changes. By the time anything NEEDS to be done it will most certainly be too late. If by the grace of God, we succeed in saving the biosphere from ourselves, it would only suit that we would have an asteroid plummet into the ocean; flooding the world soon after our environmental efforts were satisfactorily realized. Sagoff’s critic’s comment, “The earth could not avoid the path of an asteroid,” we may be in store for round two (as we have poorly designed asteroid detection technology) (375).
Rees concludes his paper with the stressing that, “This presumed economy-environment decoupling is pure illusion sustained by abstract monetary models of economic process” (385). To think that our actions have no serious impact on the environment or to surely entrust advances in technology to eradicate our past, destructive decisions is irresponsible. We cannot count on something that is predicted to occur (i.e. advances in technology). If that were the case, I’d be partying like it was December 21, 2012, which is when Mayan calendar ends. We should only be focused on the facts. Climate change is real. It’s happening now. Will we save ourselves?