Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Myth of Environmentalism vs. Economics

Environmentalism has come under attack in recent years from the more right-wing segments of the populace, especially from the Republican party and its surrogates. The myth created during said attacks is that environmentalism gets in the way of economic growth, that environmentalism is bad for the economy.

This myth, however, is just that.

The Republican disdain for pollution regulation is a fairly new phenomenon. People seem to have forgotten that the Clean Air Act, possibly America's most comprehensive and effective anti-pollution measure, was signed by none other than Richard Nixon. It appears that the major turn might have been caused by the Republican party's increasing indebtedness to big business, who sees environmental regulations as a threat to their profits. Libertarians, now that they're righty, don't like it because, apparently, they just don't like anything "the government" does. The negative view of environmentalism has since filtered into other segments of the Republican electorate, like Christian conservatives (they still have trouble defending their newfound views, since "dominionist" theology is almost painfully inadequate as a defense for undoing Creation).

Now, there is one way in which pollution controls are arguably a drag on the economy: polluting companies have to invest in filters, scrubbers, and more efficient equipment, which cuts into their profit margins. However, there's a big flip side to this argument. For one, it would seem that someone has to make said filters, scrubbers, etc., and they do make a profit. So somebody makes a profit either way, and who cares if it's GE rather than American Electric Power who makes it?

The second, and bigger, argument lies in the collateral economic damage caused by environmentally reckless actions. This collateral damage has all sorts of manifestations, like the wetland destruction (and possibly climate change) that made Katrina so devastating. One side effect of pollution, in my opinion, takes precedence in its economic impact: rising health care costs. Health care is one of the biggest problems facing our country and pollution greatly exacerbates that problem.

Pollution causes a much greater health risk than most people realize. Pollution from coal alone (as in, not including petroleum, nuclear power, pesticides, pig shit lagoons etc.) is linked to heart disease and cancer, 2 of the most common killers in America, as well as asthma and emphysema. I'll use the example of Indiana (which, by way of comparison for my Texan readership, has a population smaller than that of Houston). Pollution from coal power plants in Indiana causes annually (c/o Clear the Air):
887 premature deaths
1491 heart attacks
21,500 asthma attacks
173,000 lost work days
Increases in these things not only are bad for the economy in themselves, but they also cause increases in health care costs and insurance premiums. And just how bad are health care costs? According to the National Coalition on Health Care, health care spending in 2003 accounted for some 15.3% of GDP, about four times the amount spent on national defense. That was 2003, mind you, during the Iraq War. Spending on health care is so high that it's bankrupting people at staggering levels. 50%, half of all bankruptcies in the US, are at least partially due to medical expenses, and get this, 68% of those who file for bankruptcy have health insurance.

Bankruptcies and out-of-control health care costs are bad for the economy. Just ask any airline CEO.

1 comment:

matt crosier said...

Howdy Big D,
Always reminded how much more on top of things you are then I when I look at your scribblings. In the words of Charles Shulmer speaking to John Stewart on the Daily Show: keep up the good work!
Apros pos of your scribblings about our little ball of dirt and water and its relation to Adam Smith's myth, don't forget the cost to developers when they have to do environmental impact analysis before construction, thereby employing all those little ecology students like my sister... Looking into the possible effects of building in a certain area before building there; how ridiculous! Next thing you know the government won't want people building in flood plains...
Much as it pains my inner child, I will defer to my sister's work to add to your commentary, though it is admittedly a departure from the classic example of an unfiltered smoke stack. Non-native species issues in the United States cost an astounding amount, destroying cattle herds when the animals are poisoned by leafy spurge, and wreaking havok on waterways when riparian zones decimated and run-off of phosphates from farming thereby goes unchecked. They kill crops, leach nutrients from the soil, create waste areas prone to dust storms... environmentalism, maintaining, "coservare" a status quo (the favorite standard of Republicans) requires work and more importantly, acknowledgement that environmentalism PROMOTES good, sustainable economic policy.
One other intersting note, if anyone is so inclined, look into the economic studies comparing the use of fishing quotas in Australia to the lack thereof in the US... Australian fisherman are making a ridiculous amount of money by doing LESS work, allowing fish and lobster populations to increase to levels from the 1800's and promoting reemrgance of huge lobsters instead of the piddly stuff we get here. Conservation, promoted by the government, though I hate the idea of government control, worked in Australia. Taking environmental issues into account has MADE them money. Think we could take a page from another british penal colony and quit listening to such economic indicators as the "boys in lubbock"?