How is the Economy Related to the Environment?

Growing up I always assumed that economy, industry and business were completely separate from the natural world and the environment. The two things had nothing to do with each other in my mind, but as I learned more about the world and how the United States works as a country, I realized that I had been wrong.

In Ecology, a major principal of the study has to do with the interconnectedness of life. All living beings depend on the sun, and all living beings effect each other in one way or another. Relationships are formed and they can be positive or negative. After studying ecology, I’ve come to realize that the world humans live in is no different than the natural world; everything is interconnected and we are not separate from it. As humans we hold power over our environment and believe that we can change an outcome to fit our needs or wants, but we need to remember that everything in this world is connected in some way or another and that the Earth is a fragile being.

When looking at economy through an ecological lens, it is clear to see that industry and business have a lot to do with the environment. Big businesses and industries create externalities and pollution. In some countries around the world there are no regulations in terms of dumping and disposing of waste. In the research I’ve been conducting with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a non-profit focused on conservation of waterways, I’ve found that there is not a lack of pollution due to toxic waste in rivers, streams and lakes around the US and internationally. Waste produced by big industries can devastate ecosystems and livelihoods and create human health problems as well. Carbon emissions from factories and manufacturing sites can affect the quality of air that we breathe. Factory farming and large scale agriculture industries like Monsanto are driven by economic demand and create large unsustainable monocultures and pollution from animal waste. Oil and fracking is a great example of an industry that is effecting the environment in a negative way, changing ecosystems and creating dangerous drinking water that could forever impact human health and lives.

Throughout American history, citizens have been told that a thriving economy with jobs, industry and money is the best way to improve the quality of human life. But what if big industries and thriving economy reduce quality of life for wild animals and plant species? What if industry destroys our and the environment that we live in? We are losing precious resources like clean water because of corporate greed and the need to make money. When thinking critically about this issue on a national level, it is clear to see that policy acts as an influencing component to this issue. In a conflict between economy and environment, policy makers and leaders of our country tend to chose sides; they either care about bettering the environment, or about bettering the economy.

What can be done about this complex issue? While I am arguing that economy has a negative relationship to the environment I am not suggesting that we abolish the American economic system. I am suggesting adjustments and changes in the way both our political and economic systems work. Policy makers need to come up with regulation that creates a better relationship between economy and environment. Regulations that reduce pollution and externalities should be set, while incentives are created to encourage industries to follow the rules. Unfortunately, that will not be the only step needed to create a sustainable economic system in the United States. A system similar to cap and trade will help reduce pollution created by existing industries, but some of the newest companies emerging in the U.S. are thinking in a green and sustainable way. A lot of these businesses are using third party certifications to ensure that they are organic or GMO free or LEED certified. Benefit corporations have reinvented what it means to be “green”, and insures that a company is committed to sustainability and benefiting human communities as well as the environment. Companies and industries such as Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, Cabot, Patagonia and more are redefining what it means to be a business. If this trend continues, the whole economic system could be recreated in a way that helps the environment rather than hurts it. I believe if the economic sector cared and conserved the environment, the conflict between environment and economy would end. Until that happens, educating and spreading awareness of these issues will help toward creating sustainable solutions.