Whenever this phrase gets trotted out, the implication is that we are so darned smart that we can figure out a way to have our cake and eat it, too. Unfortunately, I suspect that those who speak this trite phrase don’t even really mean it; what they really mean is, “The economy is more important, but we’ll do our best not to harm any waterfowl.”
The economy we currently have cannot be balanced with the environment because it is based on a single ridiculous belief: unlimited growth. Unlimited growth is biologically impossible; and thank goodness it is. If it weren’t, we’d have dandelions hundreds of feet tall, guinea pigs the size of water buffalo, and humans who would require 20,000+ calories a day.
That belief—that we can take whatever we want, whenever we want, at an ever-increasing pace—has gotten us into a lot of trouble in the past, but we never seem to learn anything from these bumps in the road. As soon as the immediate trouble is gone, we go right back to buying up as much crap as we can, with some people willing to mortgage their futures because they can’t imagine life without that plastic gewgaw from the dollar store.
The economy we have is unsustainable. Civilizations throughout history have learned this at their peril. Jared Diamond’s Collapse is an excellent look at just how bad things can get when humans ignore their biological imperatives. (If you don’t want to read the whole thing, have a listen to his Ted talk.) Diamond proves how, even in a relatively short period of time, we can ruin things for everyone. And many times, the core reason comes down to pure and simple greed.
Greed isn’t really about money. It’s about having “stuff” and lording that “stuff” over others. Greed isn’t solely the purview of CEOs or psychopathic world leaders; it’s everyday people who drive the greed train. Just take a look at any poll that asks Canadians about climate change. Most profess to care; most say they want governments and businesses to do something. But ask them to not drive their car for a single day, and they look at you like you’ve been sniffing too much airplane glue.
As they say in Vegas, “the house always wins.” The environment is our house. Whoever thinks they can do without a clean environment is either delusional or cannot possibly be a lifeform, because most lifeforms—regardless of the shape they come in—need a few key things: clean air, clean water, and clean soil.
Without air, I’ll survive about three minutes; without water, three days; without food, perhaps three or four weeks. Without a job, well, I can go quite a while (and have done). Not having a job does not put my very existence into jeopardy.
People conveniently forget that the economy is a human construct. It didn’t magically appear along with a breathable atmosphere; it’s something we created so that we could trade with one another under a commonly agreed upon currency.
The environment, on the other hand, is most emphatically NOT a human construct. We didn’t create it so that we could have a nice view. A healthy environment is something we need to survive.
Needs and wants are very different things, but people often get them mixed up. You don’t need a Playstation 4 (and who would want one now that they seem to be the favoured real estate of cockroaches), or a bigger, less efficient car. You need to breathe, eat, drink, and sleep.
We can fundamentally change our economy to be more sustainable, to take what we need without putting other lifeforms at risk. We can’t fundamentally change biology. And that’s the key difference. Without a clean environment, we’ll be dead, our animals will be dead, our lakes, rivers and oceans will be dead, all the things we rely on to survive will be gone. Without a job, I may not be able to buy everything in sight…but is that really such a bad thing?