VOX POPULI: The Economic and Environmental Crisis




As our nation, and many other nations across the world, struggles to get out of the economic crisis in which we currently find ourselves, it is imperative that we pause and reflect on the way our economic system is related to our environmental crisis.

The capitalist system, which is a system that depends on constant economic growth and expansion, has without question led to severe environmental degradation. The burning of fossil fuels that the system depends on has led to the crisis of global warming, which threatens all life on this planet. Although it may be more comfortable to ignore this relationship, the long-term consequences are too dire for us to continue to ignore.

Up until recent times, there was a notion that the economy could continue to grow through the exploitation of resources that seemed to be infinite.  However, as we now know, we are living in a time when we have run head-on into the limitations of finite resources on this planet.

Back in 2006, Global Footprint Network reported that we were in ecological overdraft. That is, human beings are depleting our resources faster than the natural processes can replenish them.

Also, in the past, there was a view that we could continue to pollute our oceans and our air. First, it became very clear that our oceans could not be dumping grounds without serious consequences to all life in the ocean, which, of course, translates to life on land as well. Now, the scientific consensus is that the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has led to catastrophic changes in our climate.

Already we are seeing many examples of economic loss, crop destruction, and even direct deaths attributed to climate change. Reuters, citing a study by Oxfam, reported on Nov. 29, 2010, that “Climate-related disasters killed 21,000 people in the first nine months of this year, more than double the number in 2009…”. What is often ignored is the differential impact on those living in low-income nations as well as the poor of wealthier nations.

It cannot be overstated that there is nothing natural or inevitable about our current crisis. If we have any concern for the future of our planet, we must seriously consider a more sustainable economic system that will allow for a more rational method of producing and distributing goods and services that truly benefit all of humanity.

Any attempt to protect the environment while preserving the current economic order will fail because in order to protect the environment, the post-industrialized nations would need to shrink their economies. Of course, we understand how ridiculous and disastrous this strategy would be, especially in light of the current economic crisis and double-digit unemployment levels. Therein lies the paradox.

In order to work ourselves out of our current economic crisis, we will continue to increase the harm that we do to our environment. On the other hand, in order to slow down the progression and hopefully reverse some of the environmental destruction that undoubtedly affects us, we must place serious constraints on our economy.

In light of this crisis, it appears that we are in a quagmire. However, the beauty of being human is our ability to think and act.  We can change our destiny.  As much as the current crisis is the result of institutions that were created by human beings, human beings have the remarkable ability to construct a more logical system that would be able to provide for the needs of the population, while minimizing our footprint on our planet.

Since every single one of us is responsible for the well-being of all life on this planet now and into the future, we must take the time to carefully examine our current crisis and come up with truly viable solutions that address the fundamental contradictions of the economic system we live under today.


Richard T. Kamei is an associate professor of sociology at Glendale Community College. Vox Populi is a forum for the community. Contributions to Vox Populi may be sent 138 Onizuka St., Los Angeles CA 90012 Attn: Editor, or emailed to [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.