The Environment Indicator seeks to embrace the interactions between human society and our economic processes and the natural world, its resources, and other species. Naturally, such a task is too enormous to do more than find within the model some key “surrogate” indicators as proxies for such a vast area. We are learning more about our environments locally and about planetary ecosystems, the crucial role of biodiversity, and human effects on the ozone layer and climate. The Living Planet Reports, co-authored by our Advisory Board member Mathis Wackernagel, uses his Ecological Footprint analysis — an important tool showing further degradation of planetary life-supporting ecosystems (www.ecofootprintnetwork.org). The clash between orthodox goals of GDP-measured economic growth and climate change sharpened in 2007, after the European Parliament’s “Beyond GDP” conference, advised by Hazel Henderson (www.beyond-gdp.eu). The Kyoto Treaty lapsed in 2012 after its emissions-trading protocols failed to curb or reduce CO2 emissions. It was revived at the Doha Climate Conference in 2012 but only covers 12% of global emissions. By contrast, the G-20 and Rio+20 summits in 2012 produced pledges by all major countries and 191 countries in Rio+20 to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to more equitable, inclusive, green economies. As more research quantifies the social and environmental costs of GDP-measured growth, economic and environmental measures of efficiency tend to converge.
A Trucost study for the United Nations found that the environmental costs “externalized” from balance sheets of all global corporations exceeded their reported profits. Similarly, government subsidies of fossil fuels and nuclear energy still impede the transition to renewables.
While our Environment Indicator recognizes these broad concerns, we focus attention on indicators closest to the lives of a majority of US citizens. Air and water quality became our focus, since people cannot survive without acceptable air and water quality. Public outcries over various rollbacks in US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, including for arsenic in water and for power plants’ air pollution suggests a growing awareness of health risks from such pollution. This became clear as the anthrax and other bioterrorism threats were encountered and the EPA became key in assessing and countering such threats to national security. The National Research Council’s 1999 report, Nature’s Numbers, also notes “Greater emphasis should be placed…on measuring actual human exposures to air and water pollution” (Recommendations 4.3 and 5.9).
The continuing political conflicts over models of national progress and economic development led to the deadlocks in Congress over budget priorities and the politicizing of environmental issues and climate change. The incumbent industries based on fossil fuels and nuclear power fought to retain 90% of the subsidies they still receive, including funding politicians and “think tanks” to oppose disruptive technologies which continue growing greener, knowledge-rich sectors (see Green Transition Scoreboard®).
Through these lenses we can understand better the causes of degradation and pollution and the many steps needed to reverse these threats. As our systems approach reveals, many other domains of quality of life, such as infrastructure design, energy use, shelter, health, employment, public safety, and national security, all impinge on our environment for better or worse. Even as lessons were learned about homeland security, the role and funding of the EPA decreased as the Bush Administration pushed for greater deregulation and relaxed pollution standards.
The incoming Obama Administration in 2009, facing near-financial collapse, enacted the American Recovery Act (ARA) to stimulate the economy, which provided over $70 billion to energy efficiency and renewables. The environmental benefits of these expenditures and shifts to less polluting efficient, renewable energy are still obscured by faulty economics, uncounted “external” health and environmental damage and overlooking the huge costs avoided by cleaner technologies and policies. The understanding that our economy rests on environmental and natural resources is still rare in Congress and mainstream industry and finance. Our indicators of a broader Quality of Life and Ethical Markets’ other programs are focused on such broader education.
Sheer population increases show by most forecasts a rise from today’s 7.1 billion to between 10 and 16 billion people on our planet by 2100. However, the huge global gap between rich and poor still shows that per capita consumption of energy and resources in the United States is some 50 times greater than that of 2 billion of the world’s poor and undernourished. Thus, the most potent threat to the environment is waste and over-consumption, with the United States as one of the world’s chief polluters. Many other countries are still trying to model their own development on this unsustainable US pattern, although many, such as Brazil, are now pursuing “technological leapfrog” strategies to avoid the wasteful mistakes of the primitive industrial methods of the past. As we see in our other indicators, the potential for redesigning our infrastructures and production methods using better information and “greener technologies” can also benefit the world’s climate and ecology as well as our own quality of life. If the USA leads in these clean development strategies, as for example the City of Chicago and others in the C40 have pledged, other countries may well follow.