Why the environmental movement will fail, and how you can make money on it
Since Earth Day in 1971, if you had paid $10 a year to join the Sierra Club and Greenpeace instead of shelling out thousands a year to financial gurus for the “best” stock picks, you’d be rich now. Why? Because those groups’ “environmental villains” list included most of the fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, commercial and agribusiness “bad actors” that underlie the S&P 500. So basically, the environmental movement would have picked a winning portfolio for you at a bargain price.
More than 60 years after Rachel Carson alerted us to the dangers of DDT, it’s still the pesticide of choice for eradicating mosquitoes where mosquito-borne illnesses are prevalent. More than 120 years since Teddy Roosevelt declared, “I’ve been poisoned!” after reading Sinclair Lewis’ meat packing industry expose, The Jungle, meat consumption and land devoted to cattle ranching in the U.S. have increased. Between those bovines and dairy cows, cattle flatulence is now counted as a major contributor to global climate change.
While energy efficiency in all human inventions and buildings has improved, and the EPA was created and laws passed and enforced to reduce pollution in air, water and land, no government has yet valued the environment in monetary terms. Even though its benefits and savings (“ecosystem services”) were valued in the early 1990s at more than $33 trillion a year (about $54 trillion in 2022 dollars — Robert Costanza et al.), no government or enterprise in North America has assessed or accounts for those values in their budgets or financial statements. The only land value they recognize is real estate appraisal. Owners of private timber lands make more money selling their land for subdivisions than by harvesting the trees on it. So residential and commercial land development has continued unabated, millions of acres of trees have been cut, habitats erased and ecosystem services lost.
The “green lifestyle” (living in dense residential areas, taking public transit everywhere, bearing few children, eating organic and vegetarian, etc.), hasn’t become mainstream, despite more than 50 years of marketing, promotion, experimentation and discussion since the first Earth Day. Organic food products cost 2-4 times more than standard products; “ecological” construction and commercial products are also cost significantly more. Many enterprises now practice “sustainable business,” but most of those on the Sierra Club-Greenpeace bad actor list don’t. There are 18.7 billion Google entries under “Going green,” and 1.8 billion under “books on green practice,” yet this massive self-help area has relatively few practitioners.
Recyclable and compostable materials are mixed in most restaurants and commercial enterprises, and end up in landfills. Industries rarely control their end-user waste, or much of their own production waste. Plastic collects in rivers, and in sea and ocean hot spots and gyres; lethal radioactive waste generated by the energy, military and medical establishments since the 1930s has yet to find a re-use or permanent disposal site. The freighters and tankers that carry the world’s globalized fuels and products burn a gallon of sulfurous oil per 150 feet they travel across our oceans. A Los Angeles study found that ocean-going ships berthed at Long Beach docks produce more aggregate air pollution than all five million cars on the LA freeways.
Every country in the world uses some fossil fuel to power its economy, from coal-fired power plants to leaf blowers to weapons systems. When the price of fossil fuels goes up, the economy goes down. Humans keep mindlessly boosting their carbon output, blanketing the earth in dust and greenhouse gases, and ignoring that egregious carbon producer, war. Most of it does not get mitigated in carbon offsets.
Let’s also add the long-term effects of toxins that have been released into the environment over the centuries – from early millennia lead and mercury to current DDT, PCBs and methane. None are being fully addressed or mitigated. Chemical flame retardants (PBDE’s) for example, harm human nervous systems, hormonal functions and reproductive organs, and cause cancers. They vaporize when heated, or simply rub off of products where they’ve been applied, and rise into the air as dust that can travel great distances. They take decades to break down. Many countries in the world, but not the U.S., have outlawed them. Manufacturers have replaced them with other flame retardants, and these chemicals are also sparsely regulated in the U.S.
Diseases have also been globalized since the Spanish flu and cholera epidemics appeared around 1918. Following on, we have seen polio, Asian flu, HIV-AIDS, SARS, Swine Flu, ZIKA, Ebola, H1N1, MERS and COVID, with more to likely appear. COVID has been the deadliest virus in the U.S. since Spanish flu.
As humans produce harmful products, lurch from crisis to crisis, dig themselves out of wars, natural disasters and vast man-made catastrophes at fabulous costs in lives, resources and treasure, I’m reminded of a scene on the tv series Battlestar Galactica, where the alien symbiont whispers into her partner’s ear: “One thing we know about humans: they are masters of self-destruction.”
We created this mess. How do we dig ourselves out of it and save the Earth? The question seems ridiculous, since this is the only place in the universe where we can survive. Of course humans would mobilize to save themselves. Yet, they don’t. Between polarized politics and stoking the economy with purchases of goods and services, commercial and residential development on former forest and farm lands, travel, uses of non-recyclable and non compostable materials that are simply investments in long term landfill development, and driving billions of fossil-fueled miles in millions of vehicles, they exhibit no interest in or political will to change their habits. The economy is providing well for them.
All welfare and progress depend on a healthy economy, and sustainable business is a more expensive and less economical proposition than standard practice. People have bigger things to think about than the environment – jobs, homes, families, prestige, entertainment, politics. So the environmental movement is failing, but we’re all making money on it.