Constant economic growth is both a financial benefit to our future and civilization’s major environmental challenge. It may destroy our civilization unless we act to prevent it. Why?
First, we expect our economy to grow at the rate of about seven percent each year, doubling wealth every decade. The Federal Reserve monitors and tweaks interest rates to assure steady, controlled growth.
Second, the overall planet’s human population is growing at an ever-increasing rate demanding more food and energy with less and less arable land, and many other natural resources spread thin. Witness the devastating impacts of global warming as increasing numbers of and more intense storms, wildfires, tornadoes, floods, and droughts. Next, add the misery to which we expose ourselves along with potential – and likely – widespread conflict and sustenance shortages of energy, water, space, and food, and we face colossal challenges.
Third, we fail to evaluate environmental costs of the watershed functions, life support services, and amenities on which we depend: floods, flushing, and biodiversity, for example. All natural water bodies (including us) flush except of course, the receiving oceans. Flushing peaks during and immediately after stormwater events, rain or snowmelt as surface runoff, channel interception, and near-stream subsurface runoff as the storm hydrograph. Precipitation that infiltrates and percolates to ground water reservoirs shows up slowly as base flow: the annual hydrograph. Hydrologists know all that; the public does not. Hydrologists, equipped with powerful and precise innovative tools, inadequately explain to a public that demands protection from floods yet occupies the floodplains; wants lower taxes; complains about noncommunicating professionals. Floodplain dwellers should know that levees do not protect against floods, which will still occur. Levees simply confine the same amount of water to narrower channels making the water higher, and are overtopped. The result is not a “natural disaster:” natural, no; disaster, yes; because Homo Sapiens are in the way of a natural event.
Fourth and most serious is the diminishing ability of Earth’s biodiversity support systems to absorb within limits the impacts of diseases, shortages, and other enhanced assaults. Any further consequences of fossil carbon exploration, development, and use could more drastically promote conditions beyond our ability to control them. We are already in imminent danger of major environmental changes with irreparable shocks to Earth’s biodiversity … New petroleum exploration, development, or use? Not on my life!
In sum, humankind is clearly mismanaging its economic, energy, and environmental resources with potentially disastrous results. Attempts to find methods of creating large amounts of cheap energy are having inevitable unintended but not unexpected consequences. One solution is more and better conservation, the shift of rates of use toward the future. We should pay for our life styles now, not commit our descendants’ paychecks for our wasteful ways. We know better. Our civilization’s mindset inexorably links economy, energy, and environment. Until we figure out a way to nurture Earth’s resources, our wealth will always be at the expense of our children and grandchildren. Do you have any ideas on how to fix that? Where are our priorities? Do we want to continue burdening our offspring for our luxurious, wasteful amenities and pleasures, in the face of dangerous consequences? Or are we willing to pay now? We must find ways to do it.