Discussion of Phil Cafaro’s suggestion that recession is good from environmental perspective (Fall 2008)



2.      Current environmental problems (e.g., global warming and biodiversity loss) are getting worse and they are primarily due to human economic activity

         a.      Env Impact = population times technology times consumption

3.      We can’t seem to reign in environmentally harmful economic activity

4.      American consumption is so excessive that we could do with a lot less without this seriously diminishing the quality of our lives

         a.      “Unfortunately, we are capable of expanding our conception of what we require to survive to include stupidly wasteful products and services.”

         b.      Many believe that less is more; less consumption part of a more fulfilling life

5.      So slowing of economic growth or contraction of economic activity (recession) is good because it would help the environment



         a.      “Industrial society itself is furiously attacking the living systems of the planet, destabilizing the global climate, taking over more and more of the Earth's lands and seas--and this one NEEDS to grind to a halt, not just be "greened up" in little ways. This one MIGHT be taken out, or greatly disabled, by an economic collapse--I say good riddance. All the "regulation" in the world isn't going to change the direction of its present trajectory--this needs to STOP, and money is what circulates in its veins.”‘So, I will thank the "recession"--if there finally is one--for making more honest planetary citizens out of us (if it really does).”



8.      Need economic growth in poor countries to help them get their basic needs

9.      Lots of people lose jobs and this would be a real hardship



11.    Steady state economy?

         a.      How find jobs for new people given population and productivity growth

         b.      Ned: “Need an economy that allows us to get better, not bigger. A steady state economy is the wrong word because it suggest no improvement. Economic activity should improve people's (and non-people's lives) and growth is an entirely different goal.”

12.    Economy where jobs devoted not to senseless consumption but genuine furthering of human development?


13.    REPLIES



15.    Fewer resources means fewer resources available for env sustainability and thus the recession will lead to worse env

         a.      Implementing env sustainable techs more expensive

                   i.       Scrubbers for air pollution, sustainable logging practices, abatement for mining

         b.      Recession means businesses and governments have less money to put into sustainable practices and restoring ecosystems

         c.      Examples

                   i.       Less money to put in sidewalks and make communities more walkable

                   ii.      Obama when asked what he might have to cut back on because of financial crisis said he might have to proceed more slowly on energy policy reform (a key env goal)

16.    Green marketing and consuming movements taking a hit from weak economy

         a.      Customers who can barely afford a product will not focus on its env friendliness and so companies are reducing these types of products

         b.      "There's a hierarchy of needs, and if people are struggling to buy food or put their kids through college, they're going to see [green or cause-related appeals] as a nice thing to do, but not essential."

         c.      Wal-mart marketing green products less and less

17.    People who suffer will destroy the environment

         a.      Will the worldwide crisis be an opportunity for good change or will people act irrationally and result in panic, conflict and destructive change

         b.      Imagine an immediate halt to fossil fuel availability: People facing a cold winter in modern suburban houses w/o reliable fuel supplies for heating/cooking would likely cut down all the trees


18.    True that both earth-friendly society and a society in recession has little/no growth, but that doesn’t mean a society in recession is necessarily earth friendly

         a.      Societies might accelerate env damage when in economic stress

         b.      Not as simple as economic growth = env damage, that economy grows and nature shrinks and conversely

         c.      A lot more needs to happen to turn an economic downturn into env. progress        


19.    Financial/economic crisis may bring about an end result that is env good, crisis is not a good way to get there

         a.      Env. philanthropy will be hurt

         b.      Poor people & nations who look to us for assistance will be hurt

         c.      Average individual who needs to put food on table will be hurt




         a.      If ecological values (however conceived) are paramount, and the vast socio-technical juggernaut of industrial/post-industrial capitalism systematically destroys ecological value, then any malfunction that slows down the juggernaut or, better still, stops it in its tracks, must be a good thing

         b.      If we were to assume, for the sake of argument, that a worldwide financial calamity would have environmentally benign consequences in the long term, whatever its human costs in the short term, would it be right to wish that it would happen?

         c.      This writer is skeptical about putting ecological values above human values

         d.       “I think it is callous to celebrate an event that will cause suffering and the waste of human potential. Whatever the status of the anthropocentrism/non-anthropocentrism debate, any celebration of events that bring about real human suffering simply invites the charge of ecofascism, a charge that could well stick.”


         a.      “You use words like "callous" in your comments. But isn't it callous for humans to destroy wild nature? Has someone proven the truth of anthropocentrism: human inconvenience and suffering is a terrible thing; the destruction or disappearance of wild nature is unimportant?”


23.    Cafaro on importance of anthropocentrism to this debate

         a.      You can't set aside the question of anthropocentrism: it is central to the debate.

         b.      Two people look at economic growth in Georgia post-WWII.

         c.      To one person (anthropocentrist), it is a great increase in human wealth, resources to help people live better lives. Sure, there are some "environmental problems," and we should deal with them. But these are relatively trivial; certainly unimportant, compared to the great opportunities that have been created.

         d.      To a second person (nonanthropocentrist), perhaps a biologist or an artist, ugly sprawl has swallowed up a good part of the Georgia landscape, irretrievably. The state has lost a lot of biodiversity, and a lot of what made it unique and interesting. Sure, there are certain opportunities that exist now that didn't a few decades ago, because wealth brings new opportunities (the Atlanta ballet, new programs at University of Georgia, etc.). But most of this economic growth is pointless: bigger houses, bigger freeways, more people consuming more stuff.

         e.      The issue is the value of all this increased wealth and economic activity. And how we answer this, in turn, will depend importantly on whether or not we are anthropocentrists.

         f.       You seem to be a skeptic about nonanthropocentric value, but credulous about the benefits of economic activity in improving people's lives. Do you know that a recession would cause great suffering and waste of human potential in America? (Well it has given unemployment figures) Do you know that economic growth makes us happier and more successful at maximizing our human potential? Do you know that the benefits of growth to people (who after all are the ones who are meant to benefit from all this growth) are worth more than the costs to nonhumans beings (who, I repeat, are harmed by all this economic growth)?

         g.      "Tragic dimension:" There may be unavoidable trade-offs here of very important things: human opportunities vs. the existence of other species, for example. And perhaps your main point is just that it would be bad form to cheer an economic downturn which harms vulnerable people. Whatever the environmental benefits, we shouldn't be happy about human misfortune. Furthermore, it ain't the big-shot developers who will take it on the chin the most in a recession: it is construction workers or day laborers. They're the ones who could really suffer.

         h.      I'm with you on this. But I hope you can also find some sympathy for all those nonhuman beings we're driving off the face of the earth, in good times and in bad. We need to find our way to a position that upholds limits to the human economic project and protections for the nonhuman beings who still exist. I'm coming to believe that in order to do this, we will need to rethink our economic philosophies from the ground up. Because our civilization's default position is that limitless economic growth is not just a good, but the good. My guess is that anyone putting forth a robust alternative to mainstream economic dogma will be called either an "ecofascist" or a "green socialist." Maybe both at once! But I hope that doesn't discourage people from working away at the project.



         a.      “I think we humans have most likely already far overshot the number that can be sustained over any significant length of time on this planet. We're "living on borrowed time" in a very real sense ecologically--and that's a natural "debt" that we can't cancel like we can its constructed counterpart”

         b.      “What kind of a goal _might_ we set for ourselves? Well, we could start with a goal of getting our population back down to no more than 1 or 2 billion--humanely over several hundred years, as Naess advocated, or not so humanely, which will be the upshot if we do nothing to change course. With a much smaller number, prosperity and happiness for everyone could be a reasonable goal, along witha culture of humans coevolving with other forms of life, creating something not only new but REAL”

         c.      “The number of humans on earth does matter. What crudely proves this is that plugging very green life style answers in environmental footprint programs indicates that a footprint half the size of the average American's would require 2 earth's if everyone of the current 6 billion humans lived at this very green social minimum.”

         d.      Even if we were convinced intellectually that the only way for the human species or the project of civilization to continue is at a reduced level of population, it seems to me we should regard that as fundamentally tragic, something to be faced with solemnity and real care for those who must inevitably suffer (including, very likely, ourselves).

         e.      Why would reducing the number of humans on the planet cause human suffering?



         a.      “The population growth curve is much more moderate than the steep rise in consumption of resources where almost everyone buys more, whether needed or not, and wastes horrendous amounts. People forget that everything they do is an ecological act with an impact on resources, whether you flip on a light or drink a cup of coffee.”



27.    Env values will prevail:

         a.      Many today include an env ethic as part of their values and in a crisis time such new values can help restructure what comes after the crisis.

         b.      Financial shock will lead to more regulation to get capitalism under control and this will lead to better env regulation (given our new awareness of the environment).


28.    Green and just economy: Lots of growth/job potential in env and socially responsible activities

         a.      “The US could have a hundred years of economic growth starting tomorrow if we had a comprehensive and enduring "bailout" plan that re-orients major sectors of the economy toward repairing the environmental and social damage that has been wrought”

         b.      Does this harm the economy to some extent?


29.    Financial and ecological meltdown similar

         a.      Similarity between recklessly borrowing against the future by liquidating ecosystems and natural resources and taking on impossible amounts of financial debt.


Questions on Cafaro, Is Recession Good?

1. What are the reasons for thinking recession might be good from an environmental standpoint? What are the reasons for thinking it might not be good from that standpoint?