Opinion: The fallacy behind environmental protection and economic growth
Tesoro Corp.'s Anacortes refinery, about 70 miles north of Seattle, Wash. Photo by Alexander Svendsen/flickr.
Oct. 31, 2012
Harms resulting from society's quest for ever-expanding economic growth are clear, no more so than with the global climate. Why aren't environmental journalists making that connection?
By Brian Czech
For the Daily Climate
Environmental journalists are like doctors. Doctors run from patient to patient, harried, dealing with symptoms more than causes. They're too busy dispensing pills to talk about holistic health. It's an approach that makes money for the health industry but isn't so great for public health.
Environmental journalists run from issue to issue, harried, dealing with environmental impacts more than causes. They're too busy chasing stories to talk about context. It's an approach that makes money for the media but isn't so great for environmental protection.
The analogy isn't perfect. Environmental journalists don't have an obligation to protect the environment like doctors are obligated to patient health. But journalists are obliged to tell the truth. Here we're concerned with the "whole" truth, and it's worth extending the analogy in this direction.
All kinds of problems
Let's say the doctor has an overweight patient. The patient was small as a child and developed an obsession with gaining weight. It's hard to shift mental gears. Fully mature now, this patient's top goal is growing even more! This has led to all kinds of problems: bad knees, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea to mention a few.
Now imagine the doctor prescribing more pills for each new ailment, never saying a thing about the patient's obsession with growth.
Similarly, we have a society – a readership – that considers economic growth the top priority.
This unhealthy obsession has led to all kinds of problems: biodiversity loss, climate change, and ocean acidification to name a few. Yet society is just not making the connection. Growing the gross domestic product seems like the answer to all problems, not the cause.
Yet journalists have been missing the environmental forest for the trees. Try to remember the last article you read about an environmental problem in which economic growth was even mentioned, much less explored with nuance.
Journalists covering climate negotiations sometimes identify economic growth as the goal in the way of progress. As they've noted, China and India aren't about to give up on growth now, and for that matter neither is the United States. But that's about it for coverage. There's little exploration of the nuances: of how in a 90 percent fossil-fueled economy, economic growth means climate change; of how "green" energy can't substitute for fossil fueling of the economy; of how a stabilized climate amounts to a steady state economy.
And that's just the context of one environmental problem: climate change. When, in reading about biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, depletion of aquifers, fisheries decline and so on, do we read about the linkage to economic growth?
All environmental problems track with GDP growth, and it's no coincidence. The relationship between economic growth and environmental impact is causal, just as gaining weight is causal of bad knees. Let's be clear on this: Growth as we know it today doesn't happen without environmental impact.
It's ironic that environmental journalists don't tap into the big picture of economic growth. After all, the best, most relevant journalism connects events and problems to society's concerns. What is more relevant today than economic growth? What is more covered in the broader media? What gets more attention from politicians?
Appetite for journalism
The environmental journalist's take on economic growth will sound odd at first. Readers are used to thinking of economic growth as the solution to problems, not the cause. But that's OK.
Readers are like the obese patient intent on gaining weight. When it dawns on them that economic growth is the cause of so many problems, not the solution, their interest will be piqued, and many will develop an appetite for journalism on economic growth and the sustainable alternative, the steady state economy.
We must expose society to the fallacy behind the widespread rhetoric, voiced by leaders from former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to former Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, that there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.
Environmental journalists don't have an obligation to environmental protection. But they do have a unique opportunity. They have the opportunity to raise awareness of the whole truth, however inconvenient, that environmental protection doesn't square with economic growth.
Brian Czech is president of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. DailyClimate.org is an independent news service covering climate change. Views expressed are those of the author and not DailyClimate.org
A version of this opinion appeared on The Daly News, CASSE's blog.
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