Linking Environmental Protection and the Human Economy


Potential solutions are organized into 2 broad categories: stabilizing population and restructuring the economy. Of course, these interact with each other.

The following material is summarized, and in many cases quoted directly, from Brown (2001; Eco-Economy, W.W. Norton & Company, New York)

Stabilizing population

Given the finite resources on earth, we have two choices for stabilizing population: decreasing fertility or increasing mortality. At some point, we must do one or the other.

High-level leadership is imperative in saving Africa from HIV. In Uganda, where AIDS first became an epidemic, the personal leadership of President Yoweri Museveni has reduced the proportion of adults infected with HIV from 14% to 8%.

High-ranking political leaders must outline the behaviors needed to contain the virus, such as delaying first intercourse, reducing the number of sexual partners, and using condoms. Organizations such as the U.S. Peace Corps, religious organizations, NGOs, and the Red Cross should provide assistance in education (especially supplying teachers, to keep schools open, and working with orphans). Tax relief and debt relief are essential to rebuilding sub-Saharan Africa.

The bottom line in Africa is that we have the resources to respond to the challenge of HIV. If we fail to do so, we may witness the economic decline of an entire continent.

We must remove the physical and social barriers that prevent women from using family planning services. 42% of all pregnancies in the developing world are unintended, and 23% of these end in abortion; this translates to 1/3 of the projected world population growth being due to unintended pregnancies. The reasons fall into several categories:

  • government policies restrict access to contraceptives (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Argentina)
  • geographic accessibility limits use of contraceptives (e.g., it takes at least 2 hours to travel to the nearest contraceptive supplier in some rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa)
  • ignorance, rooted in cultural or religious values (e.g., Egypt, Guatemala, India, Nepal, Pakistan); 14 countries require a woman to obtain her husbands consent before she can receive any contraceptive services, while 60 require spousal authorization for permanent methods of birth control; television soap operas and sitcoms have had a dramatic influence on cultural values in developing countries
  • lack of education for women; the return on this investment is calculated at 20% per year (which dwarfs nearly any other investment in development)

    At the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the governments of the world agreed to a 20-year program of population and reproductive health. The United Nations estimated that $17 billion/year would be needed by 2000, $22 billion by 2015 ($22 billion is less than the world spends on military expenditures in 10 days). Developing countries agreed to pay 1/3 of the price tag; donor countries agreed to pay 2/3.

    Restructuring the economy

    Today's fiscal systems reflect the goals of another era, when it was in the interest of countries to exploit their natural resources as rapidly and competitively as possible.

    Taking control of fiscal policy:

    The market (hence Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand") does not account for nature's services: they are assumed to be free. Thus, because they have no market value, they are not protected. But we can use fiscal policy to compensate for this shortfall.

    Taxes should be levied to fully incorporate costs. Examples include flooding induced by clearcutting (vs. merely the cost of harvesting the timber), air pollution induced by burning coal or gasoline (vs. merely the cost of extracting and transporting fossil fuels), cyanide in drinking water caused mining gold (vs. merely the cost of extracting the gold), wasted land and decreased aesthetics caused by using landfills.

    This approach does not necessarily mean adding new taxes (though it may). The typical approach in Europe is to shift taxes from one sector to another, to increase taxes on inappropriate activities and provide financial incentives for appropriate activities. Examples of things that should be taxed include:

  • carbon emissions
  • generation of toxic waste
  • use of virgin raw materials
  • use of nonrefillable beverage containers
  • mercury emissions
  • generation of garbage
  • use of pesticides
  • use of disposable products

    Among the results of increasing these taxes are increased employment and decreased need for other tax revenues. As a result, income taxes will decline.

    An alternative to taxes is tradeable permits, which allow the market to set the price of the permit. The government establishes the harvest level, and auctions the appropriate number of permits.

    Shifting subsidies

    Besides changing the tax structure, we should also shift subsidies. David Roodman (1998, The Wealth of Nations, p. 189): "Few public policies are as unpopular in theory and popular in practice as subsidies. The very word can make economists shudder and taxpayers fume, turn the poor into cynics, and enrage environmentalists." On the other hand, some of our greatest achievements were based on government subsidies.

    We can and should shift subsidies from destructive activities to constructive ones. For example, governments are currently spending about $700 billion of taxpayer's money each year to encourage the use of water, burn fossil fuels, use pesticides, and promote driving and deep-sea fishing.

    e.g., road-building to support timber harvesting

    Another recent example involves tax credits for investment in wind electricity generation. On the heels of the energy crisis in the 1970s, the U.S. government provided tax incentives for those investing in renewable sources of energy, including wind. This created a new industry, particularly in California (because California added state tax incentives to federal ones). The tax incentives were discontinued, which stalled development of wind power in the U.S. But progress in the U.S. triggered European investment in wind power: Denmark now leads the world in wind energy generation per person and in manufacturing wind turbines.

    Voting with our wallets

    In addition to shifting taxes and subsidies, we can promote certification and therefore allow people to vote with their wallets.

  • Marine Stewardship Council
  • Forest Stewardship Council
  • Local governments and companies buy only green power

    Accelerating the transition

    The media must play a role: just as they raised awareness of the risks of smoking, they must increase public awareness of the current environmental crisis. This will require a major shift in emphasis, from focusing on acute, high-profile crises to focusing on chronic threats that are even more disastrous.

    Corporations must play a role, and we must encourage them with our letters and our spending habits. Converting to a green company not only pays immediate economic dividends, it becomes a source of pride for managers who are concerned about the world their children will inherit.

    NGOs evolve to fill gaps left by government and the business sector. As such, they are public-interest groups (as opposed to special-interest groups). Working with, inspiring, and being inspired by, individuals, they have raised awareness of environmental issues. They are often in conflict with governmental and business organizations.

    Is it too late?

    Additional Information:

    Brown, L.R. 2001. Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth. W.W. Norton & Company, New York.

    de Moor, A. and Calamai, P. 1997. Subsidizing Unsustainable Development. Earth Council, San Jose, Costa Rica.

    Hutton, W. (2003) A Declaration of Interdependence: Why America Should Join the World. W.W. Norton, New York.

    Korten, D. (1999) The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism. Berrett-Koehler/Kumarian, San Francisco.

    Minteer, B.A. and Taylor, B.P. (editors). 2002. Democracy and the Claims of Nature: Critical Perspectives for a New Century. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Maryland.

    Moran, T.H. (2002) Beyond Sweatshops: Foreign Direct Investment and Globalization in Developing Countries. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

    Odum, H.T. and Odum, E.C. (2001) A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

    Paehlke, R.C. (2003) Democracy's Dilemma: Environment, Social Equity, and the Global Economy. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    Palast, G. (2002) The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: The Truth About Corporate Cons, Globalization, and High-Finance Fraudsters. Penguin Books, New York.

    Prestowitz, C. (2003) Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions. Basic Books, New York.

    Rischard, J.F. (2002) High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them. Basic Books, New York.

    Phillips, K.P. 2002. Wealth and Democracy : A Political History of the American Rich. Broadway Books, New York.

    Robertson, G. (1999) Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice, Revised and Expanded Edition. New Press, New York.

    Roodman, D.M. 1998. The Natural Wealth of Nations. W.W. Norton & Company, New York.

    Toman, M.A. and Ashton, P.M.S. 1996. Sustainable forest ecosystems and management: a review article. Forest Science 42:366-377.

    Wilson, E.O. 1998. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Knopf, New York.