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The True Cost Of Economic Growth: The Destruction Of Our Natural Wealth

A new report shows in graphic terms how economic growth is coming at the cost of our natural resources, and how that trade off is not shared equally.

We’ve increasingly viewed the world through the lens of data and numerical values. We look at the economic recovery in terms of stock value, unemployment percentages, holiday consumer spending, or corporate profit margins. We see environmental destruction as a series of numbers as well; tons of carbon emitted, acres of forest cleared, toxins in parts per million. However, when we look at causation, at the way in which one thing pulls on an manipulates another, numbers barely do it justice. It’s reasonably understood that there is only so much old hardwood to harvest, only so much stone, metal, mineral, of crude to be mined or drilled, and only so much fresh potable water to drink or use for irrigation. Now public policy group Demos has released a new report that attaches our economic growth to our environmental destruction, and shows a closely related inverse relationship. As our economy expands, our environment degrades.

Demos has positioned GDP, the dollar value of all products and services created within our borders, against that of environmental health and a Genuine Progress Indicator. GDP, which is simply a dollar value with little greater accountability, is a poor assessment of our real progress. Not included within the GDP measurement is loss to foreign nations, economic inequality, environmental degradation, human welfare and health, and perhaps most important, the sustainability of natural and human resources. In other words, GDP may look great but the environment and natural richness of the country may be so depleted as to make that economic health virtually impossible the next year.

What Demos has found is that our economic growth, our GDP, has come at the price of our natural resources and environmental health. Think Progress, using data from the Global Footprint Network, uses the graphic above to show how biocapacity, or the ability of our environment to provide us the natural resources we need, has diminished by a third since 1960 as our GDP has nearly tripled in the same amount of time. This also has great implications for human welfare and income disparity. Even as our natural resources are depleted, the profits reaped of those resources is primarily going to a very few people. However, the impact of that environmental destruction is most often felt by everyone else. Water scarcity in the American southwest is hurting farmers, ranchers, and rural residents as they contend with droughts and dwindling, increasingly expensive, potable water. As the metals essential for consumer electronics become more rare, the resulting price hikes are ultimately handed off to consumers that, in the case of medical technology, can no longer afford the care necessary. As we slide off “peak oil”, which many economists believe we’ve already hit, the middle-class will contend with a nation that has underinvested in renewable energy technologies, and must foot the bill for tapped out oil wells and federally subsidized oil companies.

The truth of the matter is that income disparity is only a small part of the economic injustice in this country. Truly the sustainability with which we move into the future is our greatest challenge and the highest priority for the U.S. The people in power, those political and financial elites, will maintain the status quo of sacrificing natural resources and environmental and human health for profit as long as the effects are not felt by them. It’s important for people to recognize the established way of business for what it is; terribly exploitative and imbalanced. In a democratic society, it is necessary for the people, through the electoral process or by other means, to change it.