In Praise of Economic Pain

The threat of recession could lead to an environmental boon

| September-October 2008

  • Recession

    image by Jude Buffum

  • Recession

This article is part of a package brushing off the gloom and doom with good green news. Also included are:
Tomorrowland : An eco-smart urban design competition turns “what ifs” into “what is”
Hiring Mother Earth To Do Her Thing : Are capitalists the new conservationists?
Green All the Lawyers : Legal expert Mary Wood on how Lady Justice could tip the scales
Environmental Innovations to Give You Hope
Special Online Project: Mother Earth’s Big Comeback

Not long ago, Hummers hulked down city streets, angling for social status and house-sized parking spaces. The grasslands once considered “the country” morphed into exurbs where families longing for a McMansion of their own could choose between blue and beige. Ever-expanding malls restocked their Made in China lines quicker than any middle American Paris Hilton wannabe could say “Charge it.”

A well-heeled class of liberal Cassandras perched atop recycled soapboxes warned us against such folly. But their appeals landed mostly on deaf ears, plugged up with Bluetooth headsets, corporate jingles, and MP3 downloads.

Fast-forward to the present day. SUVs sit alone on America’s sales lots, looking like wide-eyed dinosaurs witnessing their own extinction. The New York Times recently reported that the decades-long migration from cities to suburbia is ebbing toward reversal. Despite the Bush administration’s tax-break bribe, the consumption slump slouches toward thrift, sending shivers down Wall Street’s spine.

In less than a year, record oil prices have accomplished what only tireless environmental activists once dared to dream. Detroit is finally coming to its senses and gunning for fuel efficiency. Not only are consumers abandoning unsustainably gigantic exurban homes that rack up astronomical heating and commuting bills, Governing reports (May 2008) that cities and counties are buying up developers’ land to use for conservation and parks. Even blue-collar supermarkets like Safeway and Supervalu are, according to Sustainable Industries (May 2008), bolstering their organic offerings to capture penny-pinched high-enders eschewing pricey natural food stores.

No one likes a recession. The truth is, though, that most of us need to be jolted out of a fossil-fueled consumerist binge that’s gobbling up the planet. While the latest downturn hurts, America has much to gain from it, not the least of which is sanity—a break from the soul-numbing, environmentally devastating addiction to ever more stuff.

Rebecca Rene Daria Gharagozlou-Struss
9/25/2008 1:25:34 AM

Being an American and living abrosd makes one acutely aware of American consumerisms...sadly one of our biggest exports secondary to fast food chains. I believe that responsibilty needs to be held at an individual level and changes need to be taken personally.

Dave Gardner
9/4/2008 2:13:21 PM

All absolutely true, including the comments preceding mine. Yet what has been our federal government's response to the recession? Send us a check in hopes of stimulating more consumption. And what to the candidates promise? A growing economy. There is much educating to be done. It appears I can't put an link in here, but I highly recommend reading Herman Daly's paper about a Steady-State Economy (A failed growth economy and a steady-state economy are not the same thing; they are the very different alternatives we face) at Dave Gardner Producer/Director Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

Jeffery Biss
9/4/2008 11:37:58 AM

Making simple individual changes is not enough because we are far beyond the carrying capacity of the earth we must start reducing human population, which simply requires not creating people who already do not exist. Also, our current paradigm of economic growth must change to sustainability because growth only serves to deplete dwindling resources. Recessions are going to become more frequent and worse because of increasing demand (overpopulation) and resource loss and waste that will result in ever increasing prices. For example, we have, for all practical purposes, reached peak oil and the resultant price effects have been harsh. Therefore, because agriculture is no longer sustainable without oil, food prices increase as oil prices increase. Also, intensive agriculture demands fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, irrigation, etc. If any of these elements increase in price or reduce in supply then prices of the basics will spiral thus reducing discretionary income for nonsense produced by manufacturers thus leading to recession. The only viable solution is to reduce human population and replace growth with sustainability.

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