The natural world is predominantly cyclical. Carbon, phosphorus, nitrogen, oxygen and water circulate throughout the biosphere. Every ecology text makes reference to these cycles describing and diagramming them in early chapters. Because of them, there is virtually no waste in nature which doesn’t sustain other living systems, save for toxic technological offal of linear manmade origins. The environment can absorb some of that waste, transforming it into less harmful substances, but just as the planet has limited capacity to produce renewable resources, acceptance of linear-derived waste is constrained, practically null when it’s highly toxic. All natural processes, directly or indirectly, benefit some trophic level’s constituents with food, organic matter and energy transfer within ecosystems. Otherwise, 3.6 billion years of biological evolution would have long ago exhausted global resources. Linear systems, on the other hand, are takers and despoilers, notrecyclers, which by disassembling life’s building blocks make them reusable for others.
Unfortunately, timeworn paths of consumer-driven economies, certainly since the industrial revolution but especially the last 100 years, have been linear and, in unprecedented scale, destructive and unquenchable. Eight billion people are breeding exponentially, and meeting their needs and superfluous wants (the latter often induced by Madison Avenue) is stripping the Earth’s biotic capacity to sustain life. Current estimates suggest we’re using the planet’s resources almost 2 times faster than ecosystems can regenerate and replenish them. In terms of ecological footprints, the global bio-capacity is about 1.7 hectares of arable land per person, a hectare equaling 2.47 acres. The average person in France used about 4.7 hectares in 2014. Extrapolating from those analyses, France reached its Earth Overshoot Day – the date when humanity’s demands on nature exceed what Earth can regenerate in a year – around May 5th. In the U.S., our 2014 Earth Overshoot Day was March 15th, and we’ve been overdrawing that account earlier and earlier ever since, wasting 40% of our food in the process. In fact, the top quintile or so of humans in industrialized nations currently metabolize over 80% of the world’s resources. That gluttony for resources, worsened by inefficient uses of food, water and energy, leaves the other four fifths of humanity (6.4 billion people), not to mention Earth’s nonhuman animals, plants and other organisms competing for 20% of the leftovers.
These linear trends in consumption not only leave poisonous, unusable pollutants behind, but destabilize economies. Horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing and other deep bore advances in shale petroleum extraction may have postponed “peak oil” a few decades, but they haven’t spared us shortages. Our addictive dependencies on fossil fuels and resistances to lowering consumption have drivers refilling their pick-up and SUV gas tanks at any price, further reducing their mileage per gallon because of the weight. We’ve seen in 2022, as we did in the 70s, that insatiable demands for hydrocarbons not only double-glaze the troposphere but escalate prices. Still, while lobbies are empty, customers sit idling in parking lots, cueing five or ten minutes for drive-up window services. Author Ivan Illich points out that the average American is involved with their automobile at least 1,600 hours a year between working to buy it and driving, fueling and repairing it. When annual mileage is divided by time expended supporting our vehicles, our average speed’s about 5 miles per hour.
Every American consumes over 130 pounds of resources per week, generating over a ton of waste to support that consumption, discarded in the form of CO2, methane, packaging materials, nitrous oxides, and agricultural pollution. In fact, the world uses over 6 billion pounds of pesticides each year, nearly all of which persist in land, food, organisms and water once they’re applied. Intensifications of pesticide and fertilizer usage, along with engineered losses in crop diversity, are among many drawbacks of the well-intentioned but highly politicized and ecologically-flawed Green Revolution. Sixty years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring the top 50 products of the chemical industry discharge hundreds of billions of pounds of toxins and hazardous substances into the environment, and water demands, another externality attributable to factory farming, keep increasing. Not only have agriculture and bad business practices decimated virtually all the ancient forests in North America, American farmers draw tens of billions more gallons of water from the ground than are replaced by rainfall every day. The Ogalala Aquifer, an underground river beneath the Great Plains larger than any freshwater body on Earth, will likely go dry within a couple decades at present rates of extraction.
Simply put, business practices and policies which focus solely on profit margins and economic growth are destroying the biosphere and propelling Earth’s 6th mass extinction. The general rate of species extinction today may be as high as 10,000 times greater than “background” levels of extinction for the Cenozoic Era (66 million years ago to present) because human economic enterprises don’t consider extinctions and pollution costs. The intrinsic value of other species, much less our own, doesn’t factor into economics, nor does devastation passed to future generations. Given current corporate priorities, not one wildlife reserve, protected habitat, or indigenous culture will survive the wake of global market economies. In past columns I’ve referenced economist Joseph Shumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” to describe how innovation continuously revolutionizes economic structures from within, incessantly destroying the old to replace it with new, sometimes less effective, merchandise. Such innovation-for-profit and planned obsolescence seems inherently wasteful. For that matter, profit itself, which constitutes “overproduction of revenue,” is a measure of inefficiency and waste.
Profit, by definition, is what has been paid by consumers above and beyond the actual value of a commodity or service, a price exceeding costs of production. Those costs include, in totality, capital invested in labor and materials, research and development, distribution, salaries and benefits. Profit is waste because it’s an unnecessary cost to consumers that doesn’t cycle back into production. Profit neither improves the quality of merchandise, lowers its price (i.e. maximizes value) nor benefits the laborer. Profit is excess that could have paid higher wages, lowered price for consumers or improved the quality of the product. That enormous quarterly profits of Apple and Microsoft, Exxon-Mobil, Amazon, Coke and Pepsi, Google, General Motors, and JP Morgan Chase ultimately become CEO bonuses and stock market buybacks is a decidedly linear, resource-depleting process. By enriching the few and exploiting the many, enormous profit margins violate a basic social contract, or at least expectation, that “you get what you pay for.” Billion dollar quarterly windfalls mean capitalism’s gone off-the-rails, waste has undermined society and demands on the planet are unsustainable. In short, obliterating social bonds of work and commerce rips everyone off from snow leopards in the Himalayas to black-footed ferrets and bison on the prairie to households in the Bowery.
Aside from the obvious immorality of destroying a species, let alone causing a mass extinction, the loss of a species is the loss of a biological database and vast amount of information about the world: how it evolved, how it continues to adapt and develop; how it found its niche in the biosphere. Poet and essayist Gary Snyder has written: “The ending of the lines of so many creatures with whom we have traveled this far is an occasion of profound sorrow and grief…the loss of lineages and all their future young…must be rigorously and intelligently resisted. The scale of loss is beyond any measure the planet has ever known. Death is one thing; an end to birth is something else.” That we allow markets to perpetuate such destruction is unspeakable. Jeremy Seabrook in his book The Myth of the Market has called them a spiritual cult, a nonexistent force in the universe guided by Adam Smith’s invisible hand, defying government interference. The “market,” after all, was where Ceres resided, goddess of abundance and fertility, ensuring prosperity and health. Cornucopias of goods were providential. So, times of famine meant gods were punishing the faithless. Today, our emporia are shopping malls and supermarkets, QVC and Amazon. We flock to them in acquisitive love fests and display our “blessedness” in purchases, the more conspicuously the better. Socialists and capitalists alike in conjugal bliss have embraced marketplace economies around the world. We know greed’s the very heart and soul of corporations, especially in the West, but think the marketplace, as if imposed as penance, will leave the middleclass intact, purify commercialism’s sins and keep us free from want. One look at interest rates on credit cards, payday loans and average citizens in debt proves corporate-marketplace idolatries are wrong.
Thirty years ago, Paul Hawken wrote his bestseller, The Ecology of Commerce: a Declaration of Sustainability in which he shared his vision for sustainable global economies based on ecological preservation and restorative resource usage. I reference some of his recommendations as New Year’s resolutions. First, life is always a moral determination, and, if nothing else, we’ve learned that the marketplace seldom attains acceptable social and environmental outcomes without overarching guidance. That blueprint has to be a restorative economy in which business is an ethical act guided by the same interconnected, symbiotic complexity and efficiency of natural systems. In a restorative economy, cyclical models must replace industrialized, extractive economies created only to make money. That means exceeding sustainability by restoring degraded habitats and ecosystems to their fullest biological capacity and assuring everything we use “springs easily from the Earth and returns back to it.”
Second, where harm and suffering exists from unregulated markets (e.g. climate change, carcinogenic pollution, habitat destruction; mass extinction), the real costs of goods and services causing those damages must be factored into purchases. Even during the 1920s, it became obvious to English economist A.C. Pigou that competitive marketplaces wouldn’t self-regulate to limit their harm or bear full costs of their production, including health and environmental-infrastructure damages. They had to be compelled to do so. My 27-year service as an environmental regulator proved him spot-on. Pigou’s solution was to impose taxes to correct what he termed “maladjustments,” now called “externalities,” to pay costs and expenses of ecological degradation caused by industrial sectors. Historically and without compensation, these expenses had been dumped us (i.e. the general public) and the biosphere at large. Pigou soundly concluded that producers, once forced to bear full costs of their abuses, would limit the brunt of those impacts to salvage bottom lines.
Philosophers as far back as Aristotle and, more recently, Garret Hardin in his 1968 “Tragedy of the Commons” foresaw that “What is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.” Perhaps that explains why lying and willful ignorance is lately being rewarded. Truth and knowledge, once universally respected, are suffering disrepair. To bestow greater care on the commons, green taxes can be applied to wide varieties of resources and manufacturing processes. Producers connected to distinctly identifiable and long-term damages should atone for their trespasses. Gun, ammunition, tobacco and alcohol manufacturers are obvious culprits, and green taxes on energy, such as carbon levies, would mean higher prices for industrially-produced, factory-farmed foods, potentially re-enfranchising and invigorating family farms. Internationally, green taxes could be used to slow military spending and arms races, even lower nuclear weapons stockpiles. A major portion of Third World debt is attributable to purchases of firearms and other weapons from richer nations. Like the U.S., countries always find money for war and military budgets, no matter how large, while more sensible and critical projects get short shrift. We see how behavior-adjusting purchases have provided widening varieties of plant-based meats and cage-free eggs. Governments, here and abroad, need to pass cost-integration measures to salvage the planet. After all, what arose first, regulations or violations of societal standards that called for them? Business has a right to act in a manner that produces prosperity, but only within the framework of social responsibilities. Oliver Goldsmith’s longstanding declaration need not hold true that “honor sinks where commerce long prevails.”
Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.