Sunday, November 8, 2009
Correlation of economic growth with resource depletion and/or environmental degradation
If the reduction of poverty comes at the expense of the natural environment, can it actually be considered a reduction of poverty?
I ask this question because it potentially undermines the basic legitimacy of economic growth as a means to reduce poverty, and not only the neo-liberal/neo-con version of the argument, but the social liberal version of the argument as well.
My social work readings so far tend to support the following analysis: though an increase in economic growth, as measured by GDP, does not necessarily correspond to a decrease in poverty, a decrease in economic growth is consistently correlated with an increase in poverty. The problem - so most of the readings say - is in the unequal distribution of that growth.
However, whether economic growth is distributed equally or not, if it occurs at the expense of the natural environment and/or involves the depletion of unreplenishable natural resources, then it cannot be considered a valid long-term gain, for either the rich or the poor.
There are social costs to environmental degradation that are crucial for a social worker to consider. It seems clear that the costs of environmental degradation accrue to the most vulnerable members of society, while the profits accrue to the wealthy or otherwise privileged. Of course, all pay in the end.
This analysis also (obviously) trumps the classic neo-liberal/neo-con argument that, as markets are consistently deregulated, the rich not only get richer (receiving a bigger piece of the pie) but the poor also get richer, or at least don't get poorer (because the overall pie gets bigger). Even if or when it's true (1949-1969, for example), this an invalid argument if the result of such deregulated market activity is resource depletion and environmental degradation.
It should be noted that natural resources and the quality of the environment are shared resources which industry consistently plunders for little or no cost, and at the expense of everyone. The so-called "tragedy of the commons" is as much its abuse by the wealthy as its neglect by the poor.
I would like to figure out the historical relationship of economic growth to environmental degradation/resource depletion. Have any scholars or economists attempted to measure the historical consumption of resources? Are there estimates as to the accrued cost of resource loss so far? It seems this would be easier to measure than environmental degradation - one might, for example, conceivably measure the amount of forested land lost and translate that to real dollars, even if this takes only partial account of the bigger, long-term costs to the environment.
In particular, if one could measure resource loss between 1949-1969, the same years which Iceland (Ch. 6) identifies as the most prosperous for all Americans including the poor, how much would the costs of resource loss impact the overall real gains for the poor?