Greed is the reason for climate change, biodiversity loss and chemical pollution

Torstai 15.6.2023 klo 19:04 - Mikko Nikinmaa

Growth has been the ultimate aim of economies throughout the world. If economic growth of any area is smaller than in other countries, it reaches headline news. If there is no growth at all, media talk about recession and in worst case of doomsday looming. Growth was easy to reach as long as the number of people remained low so that it was impossible to use all the world’s resources and land, and cause significant pollution. However, those days are long past. Since there are now 8 billion of us and many consume the world’s resources excessively, the basic tenet of economic growth, i.e., no need to take environment into account in economic activity, is not possible any more. All today’s major problems, climate change, biodiversity loss and chemical pollution are symptoms of our overuse of the planet.

We have reached the stage in economic activity that any increase in material consumption causes a loss in other countries or environmental deterioration. And one needs to raise a question: what for? Currently used economic theories have two fatal flaws: first, they do not take into account that the planet we live in has limits and, second, they do not consider environment as a decisive component of economy. One still hears politicians and other decision makers saying that one needs to take economic realities into account before one can carry out environmental actions. They have not realized that environment is as much a part of economic realities as employment or industrial production.

So, what is the reason for the need of growth or increase in consumption? I remember times 50 years ago when the level of consumption was only a fraction of what it is today, almost sustainable. One was happy then with a lot fewer material goods than today. In fact, consuming a lot less than today would not decrease the overall quality of life. So why is degrowth such an evil thing? The main reason is probably that it doesn’t fit into the growth-based economic theories. Since economic growth is a necessity for healthy economy, degrowth is necessarily bad. However, economic growth does not take the environment into account. If it was done, old-fashioned economic growth could mean a reduction in the standard of living: if the state of the environment deteriorated as a result of the increased material growth, the quality of life would decrease. This is what is actually happening today.

Thus, because environment is not a part of economic thinking, its deterioration is not considered as an economic loss, although it should be. Since this is the case, greed becomes the major factor in causing all of the environmental problems that we experience today. As maximizing profits (=greed) is an economically acceptable thing, one does not take into account the environment as long as possible. And greed has led to climate change, biodiversity loss and chemical pollution. What is really worrisome is that even today most politicians, decision makers and voters/common people think that greed (=economic growth) should be the primary factor in policy making.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: economic growth, limits to growth, sustainability, overconsumption

Plastics - not an environmental problem as the material but because of consumption habits and waste management

Perjantai 8.7.2022 klo 19:16 - Mikko Nikinmaa

After plastics were invented, they started appearing everywhere from packaging to toys. One can say that since 1970’s we have lived in plastic age. Pretty much everything has been made of plastics or wrapped in plastics. For years we have carried our shopping home in plastic bags, drunk from plastic bottles and used plastic single-use utensils.

A few years back one started noticing the huge amount of plastic waste accumulating in the environment. As the extreme huge plastic gyres have formed in world’s oceans, the Pacific as the worst example. We have all seen pictures of birds and fish getting stuck in plastic bags or fishing gear, and microplastics are found in every aquatic environment. As a result, a movement considering plastics as one of the most important environmental problems has emerged. However, stating that plastics are bad and should be banned does not address the real problems, overconsumption, cost minimization and waste management problems.

Plastics as materials are cheap, durable, malleable, inert and recyclable. Those properties make them ideal for many uses, and are the reason for plastic age. For example, the Lego bricks, which I got 60 years ago have not aged at all. Indeed, it is estimated that no aging occurs for at least 500 years. This durability is invariably said to be a problem, but I would say it is a good thing. In the following, I go through the questions associated with plastics and point out which changes and solutions would be available to us.

Traditionally plastics are made of oil. As our dependency from fossil fuels must be decreased, this requires that oil-based plastic making is reduced and finally stopped. However, since the material is durable, even oil-based plastics have small carbon footprints. Exactly the same plastics can be made using, e.g., wood as starting material: they look the same, are equally durable, and cause similar contamination if thrown in the environment. However, since they are not made from oil, their carbon footprint is smaller than that of oil-based plastics.

The real reason why plastics have become an environmental problem is our overconsumption. As a consequence, plastics, being very cheap, have been added as wrapping materials to everything. Extreme examples are biscuit boxes, which are enclosed in plastic and each individual biscuit is also enclosed in plastic: wouldn’t a single cardboard casing suffice? We have taken plastic bags for granted. Since we consume a lot, every time we go to buy clothes, a lot of plastics follows home with the shopping. If the use of unnecessary plastic were discontinued, a large portion of plastic contamination would disappear.

Much of the plastic is recyclable. Although this is the case, the efficiency of recycling is not more than 50 % even in the best countries. This is far from the 95 % efficiency of glass bottle recycling in Finland. If the efficiency of recycling were improved, plastic pollution would be much decreased. In waste collection, many companies are saving money by transporting plastic waste to poor countries for nominal fee. As a result, plastic contamination in rich countries disappears. However, the treatment of plastic waste in most poor countries is to throw it in the rivers where the float to the oceans, out of sight and out of minds, contributing to the garbage gyres of the oceans. It would be very simple to stop this kind of “saving”. One could make international agreements that transport of plastic waste across national boundaries was forbidden. Burning plastic waste is a much better alternative than its transport and consecutive appearance in garbage gyres. Plastic burning could substitute the use of fossil fuels for heating.

Today most plastics are nontoxic. Earlier toxic components were much more common. The problem is that plastics are hydrophobic, and most toxicants are also hydrophobic. Because of this microplastics can act as carriers of toxicants into animals in the aquatic environment. The toxicants are taken in together with the microplastics. The most effective way of decreasing such toxic impacts would be to decrease the amount of toxic chemicals, such as insecticides and other pesticides, released in the environment. The two major sources of microplastics in the environment are tyre wear particles and cigarette butts. Both contain a plenty of toxic compounds making the microplastics released quite toxic. The tyre wear particles could be decreased by decreasing car and truck traffic. Thus, exactly the same action would combat microplastic pollution and climate change. With regard to cigarette butts all that would be required would be for smokers to use cigarette trays or waste bins to dispose of the cigarettes, not throw them to the environment.

Thus, all the aspects of plastic pollution are solvable. It is only the matter of actions; one could demand that they are done.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: microplastics, cigarette butts, overconsumption,

It Is Not Racist to Worry about the Size of Human Population

Maanantai 7.12.2020 klo 15:52 - Mikko Nikinmaa

There are currently 7.8 billion people on Earth. Recent data suggest that the population peaks 2064 at a little less than 10 billion and thereafter slowly decreases so that in 2100 the population is 8.8 billion. This is taken by some people to indicate that the warnings of overpopulation were too hasty. However, it is estimated that these population sizes far exceed what is sustainable: if the European style of living was aimed for by the whole Earth’s population, the planet could sustain 2 billion people, if rich countries would decrease their consumption allowing the poor countries to increase the standard of living considerably, the planet could have about 3 billion people and if the present economic inequality persisted, 4-5 billion people could exist without clear deterioration of the planet.

The world population has started to increase markedly only a couple of hundred years ago. In the beginning of 1900’s there were much less than 2 billion people. In 1960’s and 1970’s the possibility of overpopulation was brought forward by environmental scientists, but was not taken in serious consideration in economics and politics. In fact, it presently appears that if one says that a major environmental problem, also feeding climate change, is population growth, one is immediately labelled a racist. It is often considered that the problem is really overconsumption of resources by the rich, who are then the crooks and racists immediately if they say anything about the high birth rates in Africa and much of South America and Asia even though it is clear that even the present population size in those areas is not sustainable.

Washington et al. just wrote in Journal of Future Studies 25, 93-106:  Why Do Society and Academia Ignore the ‘Scientists Warning to Humanity’ On Population? They brought forward all the points that also I think are important. The overuse of the Earth has three components: overpopulation, overconsumption, and the concept of unlimited growth. All three need to be considered together. There is also the point that the rich countries naturally cannot demand that poor people of the South are not allowed to improve their standard of living. This necessarily causes increased resource use per person.

A major question affecting the population growth is the standing of women. It has been shown that if women’s standing increases, population growth decreases. Washington et al give the following points as ways to combat population growth:

1. Assure universal access to a range of safe and effective contraceptive options and family planning services for both sexes.

2. Guarantee education through secondary school for all, with a particular focus on girls.

3. Eradicate gender bias from law, economic opportunity, health, and culture.

4. Offer age-appropriate sexuality education for all students.

5. End all policies that reward parents financially if they are based on the number of their children.

6. Integrate teaching about population, environment, and development relationships into school curricula at multiple levels.

7. Put prices on environmental costs and impacts.

8. Adjust to population aging rather than trying to delay it through governmental incentives or programs aimed at boosting childbearing.

9. Convince leaders to commit to ending population growth through the exercise of human rights and human development.

I agree with all of these, and if they are thought to be racist, then striving for improving education and for gender equality is racist.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: climate change, overconsumption, resource use, growth economy