Monday, March 12, 2012

Jobs versus the environment: flipping a loaded coin

It looks like Unions are racking their balls trying to straddle both sides of the Keystone pipeline.  Of course it’s not an environmental issue for them—unions have always been about the money.    

It’s not any sort of revelation for me to point out that consumer society reduces everything to an economic value.   Individual lives are important in the exact degree to which the humans living them have the potential to command economic resources.  And critical features of the biosphere can be weighed in terms of simple cost-benefit analyses, where only the benefits that can be easily converted to $USD are considered.   One of the side-effects of this is that whenever environmental policy debates are couched in terms of “jobs,” the environment is guaranteed to lose. 

Consider the simplest case (and insert your favorite ecological concern): exploit versus conserve, measured against potential short-term versus potential long-term benefits (imagine a 2x2 table with Jobs: exploit/conserve on the side and benefits: short-term/long-term across the top, yielding a payoff matrix with 4 cells). 

If the choice is to exploit, the short-term economic benefit is a guaranteed positive and the future benefit is negative because the resource has been used up, although the the true future costs are unknowable and thus un-measurable.  If the choice is conserve, both the short-term and long-term benefits are a neutral zero: zero in the short-term because of the failure to tap a potentially-exploitable resource, and zero in the long-term because the future economic benefits of conservation are not readily calculable.  Also, the very idea of conservation means that we still have tomorrow what we have today, so that the most effective conservation tactics leave us exactly where we are now.  This leaves only one choice with a positive outcome: exploit now.  

Game over.

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