Do you remember the story of the tortoise and the hare? The tortoise won the race because he ran the whole race, taking the long view, seeing the big picture, unlike the rabbit who, given his speed, didn’t see the need.
While China seems to be roaring ahead right now with unchecked economic expansion, the significant environmental challenges they are accumulating will eventually catch up with them. The International Fund for China’s Environment estimates that the cleanup of this mess will cost well over $100 billion annually, more than 2% of their GDP. In fact, the Academy for Environmental Planning estimates that back in 2004 China spent over 3% of their GDP on environmentally related costs and in 2007, according to the World Bank, that number was 6%. Considering that the entire US defense budget ($771 billion last year) represented only 5.5% of our GDP that gives you some idea of the magnitude we’re talking about. Does anyone still think that the environment is not a matter of national security? Environmental expenditures in the US are ounces of prevention compared to these many pounds of cure.
In India, concern over the economic impact of environmental pollution has become so acute, that a special branch of their accounting system has been created to track this. A World Bank study, back in 1992 found that environmental costs in India comprised some 4.5% of GDP. Population growth since then, equivalent to the addition of an entire US population has surely raised that figure.
Meanwhile, up in Canada, the whitefish in Lake Athabasca, downstream of the tar sands development, have sprouted massive tumors and other deformities. This has wreaked havoc with tourism and native fisheries. These costs have yet to be calculated, but they will be large. And there are still people saying that oil sands development is good for their economy.
Back home, all of these company lobbyists and conservative politicians whining about the intrusiveness of government environmental regulation, could just be like the people who didn’t want to take money out of their paychecks for retirement, but were awfully glad that they did when the time came.
You would think that people who call themselves conservatives who value conservation but they don’t seem to. You’d also think that conservatives would be more likely to take the long view. Instead they see themselves as allied with business against government interference. But that’s not a balanced view. As countless calamities this year alone have shown, businesses, particularly due to their lack of long range planning, need the balancing influence of a government whose charter it is to protect the people and the land.
There will always be a certain amount of creative tension between these two constituencies in a healthy society.
The same dynamic is playing out in the fight over California’s Proposition AB32. The folks behind this, primarily the oil companies and the recipients of their largesse, don’t see the harm in doing nothing. In fact, all they see is a potential hit to their revenue stream. But then BP was against regulation of oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico before their rig blew up. But I bet if you asked them now, they would have been glad to have been prohibited from ever opening the Deepwater Horizon.
Despite our current state of affairs, in which the balance of our society is so heavily titled towards big businesses and the politicians that are, as Ralph Nader says, indentured to them, we are lucky to have the EPA still acting in the interests of the people and the land as our American government has always been intended to do. This is something that few countries have, and may indeed be our secret weapon. By channeling our activities down the path of prevention, they may ultimately give us a significant advantage over other countries who, led by their industries alone, have chosen the path of cure instead. Ben Franklin would surely understand.
RP Siegel is co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.