Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Nature's Trump card

I'm in the process of going over page proofs for my book,  Macroeconomics in ecological context, which is finally just about done, due out next month with Springer, after far too long.

In my proofing I came across the passage below and thought it was a timely reminder as the Senate considers Scott Pruitt's nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Another kind of renewable resource is the biosphere’s capacity to absorb the waste we dump into it. This may not feel like an input, the way wood is an input to a house or petroleum is an input to flying. In fact, it’s related to an output, rather than an input, though that output is unintentional. Even so, the similarity to an input is there.

You can’t make a house without using some sort of material, like wood or stone or adobe. You can’t fly a plane without using petroleum. And you can’t burn coal without using up some of the biosphere’s ability to absorb the soot and CO2. So we can think of that absorptive capacity as an input. The biggest difference is in how its limits make themselves known to us.

When we catch the last fish, we can’t catch any more. When we pull the last chunk of coal out of a mine, we can’t mine coal there anymore. But when we overload the environment’s absorptive capacity, we can keep going. The fact that the environment can’t absorb any more waste doesn’t mean that we’re physically incapable of dumping any more. The only way to force us to stop dumping is to stop us.

Nature imposes limits on our harvest of fish by killing the fish. She imposes limits on our dumping of waste by killing us. (Seeley, Macroeconomics in ecological context, pp. 33-34)

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