“All Growth is Good.” Not.
The statement came near the end of a gathering of entrepreneurs and businesspeople in the spring of 2018.
The man who uttered it had just given a brief progress report on the Block 9 project in downtown Fargo, N.D. The Fargo City Commission, on a split 3-2 vote, had approved $15.5 million in property tax exemptions and a loan for the developers.
It was great that the project had cleared that hurdle, the man said, because, “All growth is good.”
Where Economics and Reality Collide
The moment came to mind this week as I read a piece from The New Republic titled “The Delusion and Danger of Infinite Economic Growth,” by Christopher Jones, associate professor of history at Arizona State University.
Jones discusses “How economists came to ignore the natural world.”
“The founding fathers of economics… shared a belief that growth was finite, and that the reason for limits lay in the natural world,” he writes. “(They) recognized the interdependence of natural and economic systems. Whether good or bad, the end of growth was a matter of when, not if, for the classical economists.”
Whereas those classical economists put natural resources on the same plane of importance as labor and capital, many 20th century economists discounted natural resources altogether. They considered outputs such as waste and pollution as little more than a nuisance, certainly nothing to be figured into their equations or legislators’ decision-making.
Huge mistake. Huge.
Costs & Benefits Aren’t Always Direct or Obvious
For decades, legislative bodies, government agencies and companies of all kinds have ignored what have been called, dismissively, “externalities,” or costs or benefits not directly associated with creation of something, such as an oil well or coal mine, or production of something, such as oil or coal.
Some states, like North Dakota, go so far as to prohibit their inclusion in cost-benefit analyses, as North Dakota does in NDCC § 49-02-23.
The Environmental Literacy Council defines externalities as side effects of production that affect people other than those directly involved in the production itself. They can be positive or negative.
Among the negative are the short- and long-term costs of pollution and environmental degradation.
For example, pollution from coal-fired electricity generation is negative because it degrades air quality and releases toxic greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. That leads to global warming, which leads to climate change, which has led to a climate crisis that will lead to mass migrations, global food and water shortages and billions of dollars in damage to public and private infrastructure.
Follow the Climate Change Science
Follow the science, Thunberg admonished the members of the U.S. Congress and UN ambassadors. Follow the science.
Where does it lead?
To facts, figures and projections that demonstrate just how huge the error of 20th century economists really was, and continues to be, given the negative health, safety and, yes, economic costs of global warming and the climate crisis.
For example, Yale Climate Connections recently reported on a study in the journal Nature Climate Change in which the difference between limiting global warming to 2.8°C (5°F) and 4.5°C (8°F) by the year 2100 was calculated at around $224 billion per year.
That’s two hundred twenty-four billion dollars more per year, real costs calculated by real scientists.
And the figure only represents the difference between the two scenarios. It doesn’t include the enormous costs of reaching 2.8°C, which is well beyond what countries agreed to in the Paris Accord (2°C) and the ideal (1.5°C) for minimizing climate change disasters.
Not only that, but “…only a small portion of the impacts of climate change are estimated, and therefore this Technical Report captures just a fraction of the potential risks and damages that may be avoided or reduced when comparing the alternative scenarios.”
How Much is Too Much?
The author of the Yale Climate Connections piece asks, presciently, “How much do we value life?
How much, indeed.
How do we put a dollar figure on the untimely death of a son, daughter or grandchild? Because untimely deaths due to the climate crisis are sure to be tallied along with the dollars.
I think about it all the time, that and extreme hardship for those who will manage to keep moving forward. Can’t help it. I have three kids who are staring these scenarios in the face. Or, more accurately, they’re asking me to stop talking about them all the time because it freaks them out and there’s nothing they can do about it.
But our leaders can.
And they must, because the fact is we are running out of natural resources needed to continue pursuing what’s traditionally been defined as growth, even as we’re damaging the basic resources needed for life.
The Climate Crisis Calls for New Definitions
As for Block 9, construction began last fall in the 200 block on the east side of Broadway. The project comprises an 18-story building with a hotel, condominiums, retail and office space, a parking garage and a tiny bit of green space lavishly labeled a “plaza.”
There are climate-related costs, as there are with anything that requires heavy equipment, gasoline, electricity, steel and other manufactured tools and materials. Relatively speaking, though, the environmental impact of Block 9 will be like a single monsoon raindrop into the Pacific.
But that’s the point. All those single raindrops ultimately create an ocean. Everything we build – every time we “grow” – there are costs to humanity.
And the bill is coming due.
So maybe we need to change our meaning of “relatively” to signify the costs to anyone and everyone. Perhaps “growth” needs to be redefined as improvements in water quality and increases in reforestation rather than new buildings and highways and bridges.
Instead of analyses that exclude significant elements and “all growth is good” statements, we need better, more comprehensive questions that lead to better, more comprehensive definitions. It’s the only way I can see to ever get to better, more comprehensive solutions.
The Value of Life Itself
“How much is it really worth?”
“What are the true costs to everyone?”
“How will this impact my neighbors downstream, across the street and on the other side of the planet, not just today but for decades into the future?”
And last, but certainly not least, “How much do I value my children and grandchildren?”
Like it or not, we’re in for a new, more comprehensive accounting, and we need to start asking these kinds of questions to get through it.
The ignored, indirect – external – costs of development are quickly becoming the cause of internal crises for ourselves, our families, our country and our planet.
Indeed, to minimize the most devastating effects of the climate crisis, all growth is not good.
Never has been.
© 2019 Martin C. Fredricks IV
Related – “Ending the ‘endless growth’ fairytale needs moral clarity,” BigThink.com, by Jag Bhalla