Can we afford to save the world?

the_earth_from_apollo_17.jpgThe environmental problems the world faces are daunting.  One often hears that the economic costs involved in resource conservation, reforestation, transition to a new energy regime, and so forth are so high that solving them is simply too expensive.

But this begs the question: what is the cost of not dealing with the deteriorating global environment?  And how does it compare with the projected costs of fixing the mess?

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute has some answers to these questions. The crux of the matter is that “The health of an economy cannot be separated from that of its natural support systems.”  The Guardian UK has just published a summary of the calculations from Brown’s inspiring book “Plan B 2.0″ (also featured in the Natural Patriot’s essential reading list). The cost of ignoring natural degradation is probably incalculable but very high:

“A strategy for eradicating poverty will not succeed if an economy’s environmental support systems are collapsing. No matter how carefully crafted and well-implemented, a poverty eradication programme will not succeed if croplands are eroding and harvests are shrinking, if water tables are falling and wells are going dry, if rangelands are turning to desert and livestock are dying, if fisheries are collapsing, if forests are shrinking, and if rising temperatures are scorching crops.”

And the equation works in both directions: there is little hope of halting the global environmental free-fall without bringing the world’s poorest people out of their desperate straits. So, if we’re honest about it, we have little choice but to bite the bullet and shell out the money.  Can we really do this? What will it cost to make human civilization sustainable in the long term?  Brown has made rough estimates of the costs of emergency health care and rehab for the global environment:

PLAN B BUDGET – Additional Annual Expenditures Needed to Meet Social Goals and to Restore the Earth
Goal
Funding
(billion dollars)
Basic Social Goals
Universal primary education
12
Eradication of adult illiteracy
4
School lunch programs for 44 poorest countries
6
Assistance to preschool children and pregnant women in 44 poorest countries
4
Reproductive health and family planning
7
Universal basic health care
33
Closing the condom gap
2
Total
68
Earth Restoration Goals
Reforesting the earth
6
Protecting topsoil on cropland
24
Restoring rangelands
9
Restoring fisheries
13
Protecting biological diversity
31
Stabilizing water tables
10
Total
93
GRAND TOTAL
161
Source: Earth Policy Institute, 2007.

Sounds like an awful lot of money.  So let’s put this in perspective.   Here’s what the Earth Policy Institute estimates that the world spends on military budgets:

Comparison of Military Budgets by Country and for the
World with Plan B Budget
Country
Budget
(billion dollars)
United States
492
Russia
65
China
56
United Kingdom
49
Japan
45
France
40
Germany
30
Saudi Arabia
19
India
19
Italy
18
All other
142
World Military Expenditure
975
Plan B Budget
161
Note: The U.S. number is the budget estimate for FY2006 (including
$50 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan); Russia and China data are for 2003.
Source: Earth Policy Institute, 2007.

So the USA alone spends more than three times as much on the military as Brown estimates is required to transform the globe to long-term sustainability.  Terrorism and hostile nations are threats, no doubt, but are they really three times as dangerous as our global life-support system irreversibly falling apart?

Lester Brown again:

“Restoring the Earth will take an enormous international effort – one even larger and more demanding than the often-cited Marshall Plan that helped rebuild war-torn Europe. And such an initiative must be undertaken at wartime speed, lest environmental deterioration translates into economic decline, just as it did for earlier civilisations that violated nature’s thresholds and ignored its deadlines.”

So we estimate that restoring the Earth will require additional expenditure of $93bn per year. Many will ask if the world can afford this. But the only appropriate question is: can the world afford not to?”

I highly recommend the whole book.

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About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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One Response to Can we afford to save the world?

  1. Our government here in the UK seem to be finally waking up to not so far away crises that looms.

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