Archive for Thursday, July 18, 2002

The economics of nature

July 18, 2002


Perhaps you can help. I'm looking for a word. It should describe the daily dynamic between humans and nature. In formal jargon, the word should encompass the reciprocal effects social, economic, biological between human systems and natural systems.

I don't think the word exists in any common language, despite the fact that the interaction between humans and nature is fundamental. It has been so ever since humans first appeared on the planet and exploited its natural resources as no other species could. We extract most of our economy from nature our food, fuel, fiber, pharmaceuticals and raw materials for everything from housing to steel works to semiconductors. In doing so, we convert wildlands to monocultures, such as croplands or suburbs; engineer and eradicate species of plants and animals; and change the chemistry of the air, water and soil, with side effects of global warming and heightened health risks. We use nature to handle all of our waste in landfills, streams, oceans, caverns, settling ponds and in the atmosphere.

For its part, nature each year produces a steady stream of new viral and bacterial pathogens, courtesy of genetics, mutation and biological evolution. Spurred by human travel, hordes of species of plants, animals and microbes hitch rides and invade one continent from another, devastating crops, forests and fisheries and introducing new diseases.

For a million years or so, our use of nature has been critical to our economy and social progress, and has transformed the planet. Yet, strangely, there is no simple word for this interplay between human and natural systems. Sure, there are artificial words manufactured hybrids. "Human ecology" nicely captures the idea. Ecology is the web of life, concerned with the interaction of the planet's microbes, plants and animals (minus humans) with their biological and physical environments. But, in a feat of semantic acrobatics, human ecology has become the discipline formerly known as home economics at various schools and universities.

Another hybrid term is "biocomplexity," coined by Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency responsible for supporting basic research in non-medical science. According to NSF, biocomplexity "refers to the dynamic web of often surprising interrelationships that arise when components of the global ecosystem biological, physical, chemical, and the human dimension interact."

The trouble with "biocomplexity" is that neither its meaning nor its inclusion of the human component is immediately apparent, either to the scientist or layperson. "Bio-human-complexity" is not a poetic fix. Other hybrid concoctions suggested by my colleagues e.g., cultural ecology; ecological humanism; human and environmental dynamics are valiant but gawky, reflecting our longstanding conceptual disconnect between human and natural systems.

We do have separate words for the planet's natural systems (e.g., biology, geology and other sciences) and human systems (e.g., the social sciences, humanities and engineering). But if someone at Kansas University wants to study the intricacies of human-environmental dynamics since the Pleistocene, or the long-term economic, environmental and social effects of forest-cutting in Borneo or building the Three Gorges Dam in China, there is no common word to describe the subject. Despite all their "ologies", the Greeks missed it, the Romans missed it, and I suspect that most cultures have missed it.

Why? I'll suggest two reasons: First, beginning with Genesis and hundreds of other creation stories, humans and nature are created separate and unequal. Second is our ego from this beginning, humans tend to rank themselves at the center of the universe and near the top of a Great Chain of Being, below angels but above the rest of life on Earth. As a result, humans have considered themselves a breed apart and the breed in charge. Until very recently, the natural environment was not considered an equal or intimate player in every facet of human affairs. Our languages reflect this belief: Without the concept there is no word.

More critically, our economics reflect this belief. Economics deals with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services almost all of which ultimately depend on natural resources and the environment for raw materials and waste disposal. Yet, our traditional economic indices, such as gross national product or corporate balance sheets, do not account for the actual costs at either end of the production-distribution-consumption pipe- line, namely, the long-term costs to environmental systems and resources of extracting raw materials, disposing waste and consuming energy.

The wholesale exclusion of environmental costs from government and corporate economic figures and predictions is voodoo economics. It is more serious and delusional than WorldCom's or Enron's alleged accounting frauds. As Harvard University's E. O. Wilson says in his book "The Future of Life," "A country that levels its forests, drains its aquifers, and washes its topsoil downriver without measuring the cost is a country traveling blind."

When we don't account up front for the environmental costs of our economic and social activities, we defer and balloon those costs to future generations. Consider two recent examples: first, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that after a quarter century the cost of cleaning up the worst of the superfund sites will keep exceeding the superfund for many years. Second, the real and deferred cost to U.S. taxpayers of nuclear power has now been upped by a whopping $58 billion to bury spent nuclear waste at Utah's Yucca Mountain.

A growing number of economists, beginning with those at Harvard, are calling for a "natural economics" to replace market economics. As Wilson stresses, natural economics is brutally honest. It demands two things: account for the basic dependency of the economy and social progress on a region's or country's environmental resources its natural capital. And don't pit the market economy and the environment against each other. To do so is simplistic and economically fraudulent, because both determine the real, long-term bottom line.

Leonard Krishtalka is director of the Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center at Kansas University.

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