I believe in a different kind of economy.
Every day I hear reports that the GDP is down, housing starts are lagging. I’m supposed to believe that this is the only way to measure our economy, that growth means “healthy.” But I believe the word “growth” only hides the fact that we’re using up the planet’s gifts.
As a park ranger in northern New Mexico, I’ve dedicated my life to getting folks to appreciate the foundation of our economy: clean water, fresh air, stable soil, native plants and abundant wildlife.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been out of work and scared, wondering if I’ll have enough money to pay the bills, hang on to my house, buy groceries. I empathize with every single person out there who’s lost their job–along with their identity and purpose.
What I’m questioning is how we measure economic health.
For years I’ve groaned at the phrase “housing starts are up.” I used to live on Colorado’s Front Range, near Denver. On my daily commute, hearing radio reports that “housing starts are up” meant only looking out my windshield, watching acres of prairie grassland disappear under suburbs and shopping malls. And I would think, are “new housing starts” endless? Until there are houses on every inch of our country, from coast to coast, from Canada to Mexico? With more and more people living in all those houses? Consuming more energy? Creating more trash? Adding more light pollution to our night sky?
And when I heard the phrase “the Gross Domestic Product rose,” I imagined the planet moaning under the strain of more production lines cranking out endless cars, computers and widgets from metals stripped out of the earth–all running on fuels forced out of the ground.
Of course, I swim in this consumer sea. While I self-righteously pride myself for eating organic apples, recycling cans, buying a small car, using recycled toilet paper and installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, I’m part of the problem. Recently I went online to measure my consumer impact and discovered if everyone on the planet lived as I do, we’d need five and a half Earths to make that possible.
If I want to live a sustainable life and not take more than the planet can handle, I need to cut back. As for the bigger picture. I’m hoping that soon I’ll hear President Obama has invited folks like Herman Daly to his economic huddles. Ecological economists like Daly argue we’re in danger of “growing” ourselves right off the planet–that we need to redefine a healthy economy to mean a sustainable one. This could mean hiring more people to fix our existing homes and cars, rather than building new ones.
Years ago, one of my graduate school professors announced “The earth is not a backdrop for human events.” Beyond this, I also know we rely on the finite source of materials the planet provides. I believe if we change our economic vocabulary, we can live well within our planetary means.