“In a very real sense our reigning neoclassical economic orthodoxy has been developed in an artificial world where resources are infinite, and waste, including garbage, pollution, toxins, and environmental degradation, don’t exist, and where our socioeconomic system functions in a void rather than being nested within the biosphere.”
~ Tom Wessels, in this novel The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future (2006)
I read this quote to be in the context of our current, societal track of unsustainable economic growth and the limitations of that growth.
There was little universal consideration and awareness prior to the 1970s of how collective human lifestyles and economic activities cause environmental pollution and degradation, partly because they did not yet manifest themselves in such a way to cause observable, measurable effects. The artificial world Wessels describes fails to account for environmental externalities, of which garbage, pollution, toxins, and environmental degradation are all examples.
An environmental externality is a cost from manufacturing and consumption incurred to people not directly involved in that manufacturing and consumption. There is no compensation to these people. For example, a coal-fired power plant emits sulfur dioxide that undergoes atmospheric oxidation and falls as acid rain. This acid raid damages trees on my property and pollutes my well water, as is the case for other people downwind. The power plant does not pay for environmental cleanup and public healthcare costs. Like pharmaceutical and recreational drug use has side effects, manufacturing and consumption of a product has side effects (environmental externalities).
This artificial world became most pronounced during two events: the industrial revolution and post-World War II. America’s industrial revolution spurred the growth and development of “big businesses,” whose wealth rested on the manufacturing of commodities such as oil and coal. Post-World War II witnessed the emergence of an interstate highway system and a consumptive economy and culture marked by synthetic chemicals and fertilizers and the availability of affordable, disposable goods. The manufacturing processes of the industrial revolution and interstate highway system and consumptive economy and culture of post-World War II both exemplify environmental externalities.
The question becomes “If we have collectively attained a greater scientific understanding of environmental pollution and degradation, why does our current economic orthodoxy and policy-making at all government levels predominately remain confined to this artificial world?” There must be a rebirth of our current economic orthodoxy into a world of finite natural resources and externalities coupled with a rebirth of our socioeconomic system into the biosphere. Our economy is a subset of the biosphere. We must advocate for these rebirths to foster new cultural attitudes and public policy reforms.
See the recommended reading list!
~by Angelo Teachout
photo credit of Tom Wessels: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/