It’s not nice to ignore Mother Nature

A new book by Geoffrey Heal, professor at Columbia Business School, makes a trenchant point that’s ignored by those currently in power: our prosperity depends on protecting the planet.

Heal did a Q&A interview about his book, Endangered Economies, in the current issue of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ magazine Catalyst. (Heal is also UCS board member and an expert on economics and the environment.)

“The natural world provides everything we depend on,” Heal says. “We get our food from the natural world, we get our drinking water and our oxygen from the natural world, and we evolved as part of it. We simply can’t live without it. Plants create food, and they need pollination from insects and they need rain and they need soil. We can’t synthesize these things. So we really are totally dependent on the natural world in the end.

“The strange thing is that people don’t acknowledge that more. You know, most of us now live in cities. We don’t see much nature. We are very embedded in our latest technologies, such as our computer networks and our cell phones. There’s a sense that we’re so technologically sophisticated that we don’t depend on the natural world anymore. But that’s actually not true: we need it as much as our ancestors did, and for the same reasons.”

That’s why it is more crucial than ever to protect the natural world, because as Heal notes, “If we don’t make some changes in the way we organize our economic systems, I believe we will see catastrophic environmental change in our lifetimes—catastrophic for us. The good news is that, by making a few very achievable alterations to correct some egregious flaws in our economic system, we can go far toward ending this threat to our environment and our prosperity.”

What’s needed is a so-called Total Cost of Ownership approach in our actions and transactions. “For an economic system to be viable in the long run we need to make certain that everyone’s accounting is done properly, to account for all the costs they generate.” For example, in the case of climate change, “if you’re an oil company and I’m a consumer buying gasoline for my car, neither of us takes into account the fact that this gasoline will change the climate. It is external to—or omitted from—the transaction.”

External costs of that type pose the biggest threat to the environment, he continues, because they “prevent nature and the economy from working together. We simply can’t afford to continue to ignore this harmful error in our economic policies.”

Will a mission to preserve the natural world and take drastic steps to deal with climate change by moving away from fossil fuels be too expensive? Well no.

Heal says the cheapest ways of producing electricity in significant parts of the world are by using wind and solar. “In the southern United States, you can produce solar power for roughly four cents per kilowatt-hour; in the Middle East you can produce it for about three cents, whereas natural gas will cost you five or six cents and coal and oil will cost even more than that. The least expensive power stations in the United States today are wind power stations generating electricity that costs about 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour—roughly half the price of what it costs from the latest efficient natural gas power station, even at a time when natural gas is selling at a historically low price.”

Then there is the cost of not moving away from fossil fuels, Heal continues: huge costs from sea level rise, wildfires, droughts, potentially more serious storms, the spread of tropical and subtropical diseases, plus the extinction of a large number of species.

“So, anyone looking at the full economic picture can see that changing to clean energy is going to lower our costs rather than raise them.”

That should be something that conservatives (well, those not named the Koch brothers or Scott Pruitt or Rex Tillerson) can and should get behind.

Images: Endangered Economies cover, Geoffrey Heal

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