E. Environment and Sustainability

In this Chapter:

In market economies, companies are measured by the value of the products and services they generate and how monetarily profitable they are. Markets do not measure the negative impact of these companies using up natural resources or polluting the environment (“externalities” in economic jargon). But as we reach the limits of global resources, these negative impacts loom ever larger.

Study Questions

  1. For much of history, humankind fought just to survive in an often harsh environment. But now humans have largely conquered the world and overcome the dangers that threatened our ancestors: heat, cold, drought, floods, famine, plagues, predators, etc. Will technology continue to make our lives better, or does the destructive side of technology now outweigh its benefits?
  2. What promising new technologies or social changes should be pursued to reduce environmental impact on our world?
  3. Over the past several centuries, human population has grown rapidly and many other species have gone extinct. What would be an optimal number of people in the world?
  4. Producing material goods impacts the environment in a variety of ways. Is the value of material goods worth this environmental destruction or is spiritual fulfillment more important?

Overview Article E

13 pages total

“The Growth Consensus Unravels,” by Jonathan Rowe, Dollars & Sense, Issue 224, July-August 1999, 13 p.

As the market hurdles towards multiple implosions, social and environmental as well as financial, it is just possible that the economics profession is going to have to do what it constantly lectures the rest of us to do: adjust to new realities and show a willingness to change. Great article on economic growth, materialism and quality of life (some historical context)

Reading Set E1: Pollution, Toxic Wastes, Garbage

55 pages total

“Car Trouble: The Automobile as an Environmental and Health Disaster,” by Alejandro Reuss, Dollars & Sense, March/April 2003, 12 p.

Automobiles pollute the oceans and the air, overheat cities and the earth, devour land and time, produce waste and noise, and cause injury and illness.

“Ocean Protection Case Studies,” National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), June 4, 2003, 9 p.

Marine ecosystems and fish populations are in trouble, but proven solutions exist to restore the health of the oceans.

“Albuquerque’s Environmental Story: Environmental Justice,” by Dolores S. Herrera with material from the SouthWest Organizing Project, 2006, 7 p.

A simple introduction to the relation between pollution and environmental justice using two Superfund sites in New Mexico as an example.

Book review by Judy Brady of Cancer-Gate: How to Win the Losing Cancer War by Samuel S. Epstein, MD, Yes! Magazine, Fall 2005, 4 p.

Epstein’s follow-on book to The Politics of Cancer, examines why the general public is so unaware of what is causing our cancer epidemic.

“Landfills, Bioreactors and Incinerators Are Garbage Destinations: What Doesn’t Recycle is an Environmental Danger,” by V. Hughes, Associated Content, September 17, 2007, 3 p.

A brief overview of U.S. garbage disposal systems.

“Toxic Shock: How Western Rubbish Is Destroying Africa,” by Meera Selva, The Independent (UK), September 21, 2006, 4 p.

Western corporations are exploiting legal loopholes to dump their waste in Africa. In Ivory Coast, the price has been death and disease for thousands.

“Anti-Burning Man: Von Hernandez sparked a mass movement to keep trash incinerators out of the Philippines,” by Michelle Nijhuis, Grist Magazine, April 15, 2003, 6 p.

Large-scale waste incineration is being moved to developing countries, but the Philippines became the first country in the world to adopt a nationwide ban on incineration thanks to people like Von Hernandez, the coordinator of Greenpeace International’s Toxics Campaign in Asia.

“World’s Worst Polluted Places,” Blacksmith Institute, 2007, 21 p.

A description of 10 of the worst pollution sites in the world, the causes (mostly heavy metal mining and manufacturing), the health impacts, and the state of remediation.

Reading Set E2: Destruction of Habitat and Extinction of Species

57 pages total

“Lions And Tigers And Bears (Going Extinct) — Oh My! Species Extinction: Causes, Statistics, and Trends,” Grinning Planet, Issue 82S, 2004, 7 p.

An overview of extinction trends and loss of habitat.

“Causes of Endangerment,” EndangeredSpecies.com, by Lauren Kurpis, 4 p.

What causes species to disappear?

“New measure of wealth accounts for resource depletion, environmental damage,” Modified World Bank Press Release, MongaBay.com, September 18, 2005, 4 p.

The World Bank offers new estimates of total wealth, that include produced capital, natural resources, and the value of human skills and capabilities.

“Overfishing, Tragedy of the Commons, and Resource Depletion,” blog entry by Matthew E. Kahn, (includes the Associated Press article “Overfishing May Harm Seafood Population”), November 3, 2006, 4 p.

Rising demand for fish, the absence of Ocean private property rights, and technological advance (i.e., boats that can extract more fish per hour) all combine to potentially exhaust the fish supply. Overfishing, Tragedy of the Commons and Resource Depletion

“U.S. Endangered Species Act Works, Study Finds,” National Geographic News, April 18, 2005, 3 p.

The longer an animal or plant species is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the more likely it is to recover. Hopeful perspective.

“A Watershed Runs Through You,” by Freeman House, Yes! Magazine, Winter 2004, 7 p.

The struggle to bring back endangered salmon draws one community into a new commitment to the well-being of its watershed.

“Pressure: what birds tell us about problems,” Bird Life International, 2006, 28 p.

A comprehensive look at the forces behind destruction of habitat and extinction of species, using birds as an example.

Reading Set E3: Global Warming

43 pages total

“Global Climate Change and Energy: Temperature Change History,” Schlumberger Excellence in Educational Development (SEED), 4 p.

Brief overview of temperature variations in the last 450,000 years.

“The Discovery of Global Warming,” by Spencer Weart, June 2006, 9 p.

A short history of the discovery of global warming.

“Warning on Warming,” a review by Bill McKibben of Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policymakers by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (IPCC), The New York Review of Books, Volume 54, Number 4, March 15, 2007, 10 p.

A short history of the scientific research on global warming, the current scientific consensus, and the importance of citizen mobilization.

“Climate of Denial,” by Bill McKibben, Mother Jones, May/June 2005, 6 p.

How special interests and pseudoscience distorted the truth about global warming.

“Snowed,” by Ross Gelbspan, Mother Jones, May/June 2005, 6 p.

Why the U.S. news media has remained silent despite the overwhelming evidence for global climate change.

“Ten Things You Can Do to Stop Global Warming,” by the Sierra Club, 3 p.

Personal and political ways to stop global warming.

“12 Key Benchmarks for Achieving a Sound Energy Plan,” by the Sierra Club, undated, 12 p.

Lists and explains twelve policies that would create a sound energy policy and compares them with what the Bush Administration is doing.

“Sweden Vows to Go Oil-free in 15 years,” by Rik Langendoen, Yes! Magazine, Summer 2006, 1 p.

Sweden already gets 26% of its energy from renewable sources and plans to eliminate dependency on fossil fuels by 2020.

“States Pioneer Climate Action,” by Daina Saib, Yes! Magazine, Summer 2006, 1 p.

New England states, Maryland, and California are actively working to stop global warming.

Reading Set E4: The Limits to Growth

34 pages total

“Why Population Matters,” The Population Institute, 3 p.

Rapid population growth causes or exacerbates poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, economic stagnation, resource depletion, disease, and illiteracy — a surefire formula for global insecurity.

“Beyond The Limits To Growth,” by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, and Jørgen Randers, In Context, Summer 1992, 11 p.

A new update to The Limits to Growth reveals that we our world is closer to ‘overshoot and collapse’ — yet sustainability is still an achievable goal.

“Enough Is Enough,” by Bill Butler and Donna Butler, Vision, Summer 2004, 7 p.

A review of three books critiquing materialism.

“Peak oil preview: North Korea & Cuba,” by Dale Jiajun Wen, Yes! Magazine, Summer 2006,  5 p.

Cuba survived much more comfortably than North Korea after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent diminished oil supply. The government reaction of both countries is examined as a precursor to decreasing oil supply throughout the world.

“A New Materials Economy,” an excerpt from,” Chapter 12. Building a New Economy” in Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble by Lester R. Brown, 2006, 8 p.

Moving from a throwaway economy to one based on cradle-to-cradle materials use.

Reading Set E5: Sustainable Environmental Practice

48 pages total

Executive summary of The Carbohydrate Economy: Making Chemicals and Industrial Materials from Plant Matter, by David Morris and Irshad Ahmed, 1993, 13 p.

One of the most promising strategies to marry economic development and environmental protection is to dramatically substitute biochemicals for petrochemicals.

“Seven Steps to Doing Good Business: Devising a system of commerce and production in which each and every act is sustainable and restorative,” by Paul Hawken and William McDonough, Inc. Magazine, November 1993, 27 p.

How to devise a system of commerce and production in which each and every act is sustainable and restorative.

“Breakthrough Concept ‘Responsibility’ — Imagine That! — Becomes Law in Maine,” by Frances Moore LappĂ© and Kate Koester, Yes! Online, April 2006, 5 p.

Maine is the first state to enact “producer responsibility” for electronics.

“A Sewer Becomes a Water Park,” by Karen Charman, Yes! Magazine, Winter 2004, 3 p.

A floating ecological living machine — a gorgeous botanical garden — is restoring open sewage canals in Fuzhou, China.

Additional Resources


Next Reading Set Collection: F. Economic Systems