Foreign Policy Blogs

Nature, Poison and "Eco-Nomics"

I got back about an hour ago from walking my daughter to school.  We live in a big city with a big park through which my wife or I walk the kid.  It was snowing this morning – one of those intense squalls that come to us here in late winter and early spring.  It was quite lovely in the park with the fat snowflakes lightly pummeling us and the air fresh with all the wetness and swirling motion.  The quietness was also nice.  I love snow.

Yesterday I was thinking about all the many ways that we humans have conjured to subvert nature.  More than that, it sometimes feels as if we truly want to kill nature, to poison it with our effluents.  This is self-destruction, pure and simple, because we are in nature and of nature and without it, we will be nothing.  I really don’t like zoos or aquariums because, to me, a lion in a zoo is not a lion.  A lion on the veldt is a lion.  A dolphin in the ocean is a dolphin.  See this old “Calvin and Hobbes” strip to better get my drift.


Similarly, if we destroy our home, we destroy ourselves.  We are spewing our fertilizer waste into the oceans creating dead zones.  We are drowning the developing world in our e-waste.  We burn off $40 billion worth of natural gas every year, adding still another greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.  We blow the tops off mountains in incredibly rich and diverse ecosystems, release toxic sludge from mining into our lands and waters, and all to feed the ravenous appetite of our power plants which themselves are sending forth billions of tons of carbon dioxide year on year.  Thus we feed our own ravenous appetites.

What is it with us?  We should know better at this late date.  I wrote about all the poisons we ingest and put out at Detoxification – For Fun and Profit a few years ago.  There are so many other, better ways for us to live with ourselves and our planet.  We know what they are and, according to some ways of thinking, we have the free will to exercise smarter, more creative and healthy choices.

Good people like Bill McKibben (The End of Nature and Deep Economy), Barry Commoner (Making Peace with the Planet), Paul Hawken (Ecology of Commerce) and others have written eloquently in recent years about the need for us to think and act differently.

Rob Watson, the editor of “Greener Building News,” part of the truly comprehensive, thoughtful and progressive “” complex of publications and information services, had a great essay last autumn, Sacking the Temple of Ego-Nomics.  He says that the laws of industry and commerce as they are presently written and understood ignore the impacts of our actions.  “Under ego-nomics the only things that are truly invisible are the non-economic impacts of a transaction (pollution, exploitation, extinction), which are aptly described as ‘externalities.'”

But, he writes, “‘Eco-nomics,’ on the other hand, is a 21st century concept that actually embraces the REAL laws of the planet-the ones that apply to ALL species, not just one: chemistry, biology and physics.”  Can we get there from here?  Watson isn’t sure.  In fact, he’s a little pessimistic.

My perspective is that the phenomenal work of journalists like him, the architects and developers he’s writing about, the other many extraordinary entrepreneurs, policymakers, philosophers, economists, environmentalists, engineers, and others who have been really trying to move us in the right direction, is beginning to pay off.  We are in the soup – let there be no mistake.  We are fast approaching monstrously dangerous tipping points:  the thawing of the permafrost, the melting of the glaciers and the icecaps, the withering of the rainforests, etc.  However, we are also gathering a good head of steam on building out a new energy infrastructure, on housing and transporting ourselves better and smarter, and maybe, just maybe we are learning that consumption doesn’t equate with well being.  The quality of our lives, material and inner, may not yet forever be judged by our per capita GNP, whether or not we have the newest model car or smartphone, or the cut of beef we eat and the quality of the wine we drink.



Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change