Saving the world in six “easy” steps
Saving the world in six “easy” steps
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
July 6, 2006
General ideas toward a future where I won’t have to apologize to my grandkids
Lots of people more intelligent than I am have theorized ways to “save the world” in terms of the preserving the environment in its current condition for future generations. Without getting too specific I believe there are six key concepts to address in achieving this goal.
1. FULL COST ECONOMIC ANALYSIS
Many people believe that “economics” is the enemy of the environment. This is not necessarily true. The enemy of the environment is failing to account for all the true costs of producing something, using a resource, or converting a natural system for another purpose.
Too many decisions are made without looking at the total cost. We need to begin looking at the system as a whole and encouraging businesses, governments, and individuals to do the same.
Today a firm can profitably produce goods in a certain manner as long as it doesn’t have to worry about externalities—costs that are not reflected in the price of a good or service but are passed on to society as a whole in the form of pollution, resource depletion, or other detrimental effects.
For example, oil producers can extract petroleum from the Earth and sell it without every worrying about the long-term costs of geopolitical security, social stability, or climate change. This is because no one—not governments or markets—is forcing them to bother with these concerns.
We need to start accounting for these externalities. While this may seem impossible, the United Nations, the World Bank, and other organizations and governments are now trying to do just this, calculating the cost of various forms of environmental degradation and loss of ecological services. Often, when economists objectively look at the costs associated with replacing an ecological service with a man-made solution, they find that the natural solution was more effective and less costly.
Baobab tree at sunset in Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
We need to evaluate the true inputs and outputs when we make a decision to design a product or convert a natural system for another use. In many cases, once the true costs of society are tabulated, we may find that instead of extracting resources or creating materials for one-time use, it becomes more economically attractive to reuse or incorporate them into new products. By levying externality charges on firms and individuals that produce damaging goods or convert natural systems at a net loss to society, we can encourage such thoughtful evaluation prior to decision-making.
Subsidies play an important role in economic decision-making. Subsidies can distort the true cost of something, though they can also be used as a catalyst to promote new ways of doing things that may eventually prove more economic in the long run. Ideally, subsidies shouldn’t be used to catalyze behaviors that do long-term economic harm to society through resource depletion, pollution, or other forms of environmental degradation.
How can we actually bring this to fruition? As mentioned above, we might consider levying externality charges on entities that conduct activities that are “uneconomic” when all costs are factored in. We might also reduce wasteful subsidies that are truly uneconomic when all inputs and outputs are considered. These can be effective ways to promote intelligent resource use.
Intelligent resource use extends to individual behavior. If we can simplify and reduce our personal use of things like electricity and packaging, both the planet and ourselves will be better off.
Kids and adults who know about the world are less likely to destroy it without considering the consequences.
Blackboard in Gabon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Education has also been shown to improve income prospects for the world’s poor, while education for women, specifically, has been found to delay the age at which a woman has her first child, thus reducing the number of children a woman can expect to bear over the course of her lifetime. Finally, it is important to remember that education extends beyond what is learned in a classroom. A recent Cornell study found that children introduced to “wild” nature activities in childhood were more likely to show interest in the environment as adults.
3. SMALLER POPULATION
According to figures released last year by the U.N., global birth rates fell to the lowest level in recorded history with the average woman in the developing world having 2.9 children, down from an average of nearly six babies in the 1970s. UN demographers also predict that fertility in most of the developing world will fall below the replacement level (2.1 children per woman) before the end of the 21st century. Factors leading to falling birth rates include increased level education for women, the use of contraceptives, and urbanization. The human population is expected to peak around 9.1 billion in 2050.
Nevertheless, the world’s human population is still the ultimate driving force behind all forms of environmental degradation. Consumption in wealthy countries and developing countries alike is pushing species toward extinction while diminishing availability of viable land and exhausting resources. Some are especially concerned by the tremendous economic expansion of China and India, but still, with current resource use, citizens of the United States use far more resources per capita than any other people on Earth. In other words, with current consumption patterns, overpopulation in the United States (population growth rate roughly 1 percent) is more of a threat to the Earth’s environment than overpopulation in Angola (population growth rate of 3.7 percent). Using concepts explored in the first section, it may be possible to reduce the ecological footprint per individual without sacrificing quality of life.
Still, slowing population growth will be an important step to reducing mankind’s impact on the environment and the species with which we share the planet. Research indicates that a woman’s education is the most significant factor in the number of children she bears.
4. CREATIVE APPROACHES TO POVERTY REDUCTION
Children in Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Increasing prosperity has been linked to improved health and increased concern for the environment. In the world’s poorest regions there are few economic options, other than subsistence activities—which tend to lead to environmental degradation—and direct aid which too often has not only bred corruption and the misallocation of resources away from those who need it most, but has also fostered dependency and skewed the perceived value of goods and services. Private initiatives—entrepreneurship funded through micro finance programs—could play a more significant role than traditional aid handouts in the future. It will be important to conduct these activities with ecological principles in mind, remembering the economic concepts expressed in the first section.
Corruption is extremely costly to developing economies. Corruption breeds poorly performing economies by discouraging private sector development, scaring off foreign investors, undermining government credibility, and impeding poverty alleviation. Kleptocratic rulers believe that they stand to gain more from taking a large share of a stable or shrinking economy than from exploiting a shrinking portion of an increasing economy. Economies based on natural resource extraction are particularly prone to kleptocracy.
Corruption and lack of transparency mean that environmentally-damaging and economically unsound activities can be planned and take place without any safeguards or supervision. Corrupt officials collude with private firms to illegally harvest timber, extract minerals, or over-harvest fisheries. In developing countries alone, the World Bank estimates that US$15 billion in tax revenues is lost annually. Much of this loss is supervised by or even done with the collaboration of corrupt government officials.
Reducing corruption is a difficult task. Holding politicians accountable for their actions has always been difficult. Some simple steps in the right direction include: Reducing bureaucracy to make it easier for ordinary people to start businesses and small firms to grow; implementing laws that are well-defined and universally enforced; and minimizing barriers to trade.
6. PROTECTION AND RESTORATION OF WILDLANDS
While history can teach us lessons for the future, there is no use bemoaning past deforestation and habitat destruction. Today the concern should be how to protect important habitats and best utilize lands already cleared so they support productive activities, now and for future generations. Without improving the well-being of people living in and around forests and other wild lands, we cannot expect these ecosystems to persist as fully functional systems and continue to cater to our needs.
In addressing environmental problems, it is important that decision-makers not only be concerned with the transformation of existing natural ecosystems, but also the more rational utilization of already cleared and degraded areas. To lessen future forest loss, we must increase and sustain the productivity of farms, pastures, plantations, and scrub land in addition to restoring species and ecosystems to degraded habitats. By reducing wasteful land-use practices, consolidating gains on existing cleared lands, and improving already developed lands, we can diminish the need to convert additional landscapes.
Creating protected areas like national parks is a great way to conserve ecosystems and endangered species, but the most successful parks are those that are economically viable or at least have the support of local people living in and around the protected area. If local people have a financial interest in the park—usually through tourism or government compensation programs—they may form a “community watch” which protects the park from illegal logging and wildlife poaching. Conservation becomes more palatable when the full value of the ecological services provided by the intact, or carefully managed ecosystem, is taken into account.
Considering the economic, recreational, and social value of wild lands, there is little doubt that humanity is better off making its best effort to conserve the world’s remaining store of such lands. A lot can still be done. Using our intelligence and ingenuity, the human species can preserve biodiversity and unique places for future generations, without compromising the quality of life for present populations. Anything less reduces our options in the future and leaves the planet a poorer place.
Saving the forests, oceans, wetlands, deserts, and tundras of the world may require a fundamental change in the way we humans see the world around us. It is our underlying philosophy, one that has been conditioned since birth, that has turned so many of Earth’s unique ecosystems into places in peril today.
Sustaining viability through biological diversity
As much as we may want to believe it, man is not apart from nature. We are not exempt from the laws of nature nor the sole heir of all the precious resources of this planet. Our place in the universe is not to conquer Earth and cultivate the entire planet to suit our needs, while extinguishing those species that do not directly benefit us.
It is not important whether you consider man divinely inspired, or a small cog in the Gaia (Mother Earth) system, or merely a territorial primate species that evolved to the point where it could develop technology to dominate all other species. What is imperative to our species and all other species is biological diversity. This biodiversity crisis that we are facing today transcends religions, though traditional religions, both tribal and institutional, lend support to the preservation of biodiversity.
What makes life on Earth livable for our species is biodiversity—from tigers in Bhutan to gila monsters in the United States to the lone Spix’s macaw in Brazil to horned beetles in Africa to the goldfish in your home to tube worms in hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean to sea cucumbers living on the coral reefs of Madagascar to the mites on your cheese. By extinguishing hotbeds of biodiversity—rainforests, wetlands, coral reefs, and grasslands—we are destroying a part of ourselves. Biodiversity will recover after humanity is gone, but in the meantime, the continuing loss of our fellow species will make Earth an awfully crowded, but lonely, place.
Past extinctions have shown it takes at least 5 million years to restore biodiversity to the level equal to that before the extinction event. Our actions today will determine whether Earth will be biologically impoverished for the 500 trillion or more humans that will inhabit the Earth during that future period.
The current extinction event rivals the extinctions caused by natural disasters of global ice ages, planetary collisions, atmospheric poisoning, and variations in solar radiation. The difference is that this extinction was conceived by humans and subject to human decisions. We are the last, best hope for life as we prefer it on this planet.
Beyond these moral and ethical concerns, there is economic justification for preserving Earth as we know it.
This article draws on previous mongabay.com articles for inspiration.