When we measure Gross Domestic Product, we’re not measuring what we destroy.
Trump is trumpeting how great the economy is, his tax cuts and how he is freeing the economy. Few have failed to notice how he has been relaxing industrial regulation and how he has weakened the agencies responsible for keeping workers safe and ensuring that the environment stays clean.
But it seems to me that with all the stuff we’re making, we’re making a lot more work for ourselves. I can recall an article that said that it would take about a thousand years to clean up all of the plastic in the oceans. I recall another that says that there are coal mine fires that have been burning for decades and no one knows how to them out. I recall yet another that we’re still cleaning up from the Deepwater Horizon oil spills. And then there is the giant smoldering pit of electronics waste in China.
We’re making trash and we put it in giant holes we call landfills. What we used to call recycling, was actually us just shipping our plastic waste to China. China isn’t taking our waste anymore due to Trump’s trade war with China. I have a brown trash can and a blue trash can. That didn’t mean anything?
We’re fouling the air with pollution, and we’re very busy trying to figure out ways to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Every day, I read of some new gizmo designed to suck CO2 out of the air and turn it into something else. Usually, it’s fuel, but what I’d really like to see is a way to turn the CO2 from the air into concrete or something that stores it away for the next thousand years.
What is the value of the damage done to the environment due to industrial pollution? BP paid $62 billion for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Is that an accurate accounting of the cost of the damage to life in the Gulf of Mexico? I’m not even sure we can put a price on it. That life, like all of the other life on the planet, supports human life. And when that goes, we go.
The idea that it will take a thousand years to clean the plastic from our oceans is mind-boggling. Yes, there are scientists and engineers working on the problem of cleaning out the plastic we can see. But who can solve the problem of cleaning out the plastic we can’t see when 99% of the plastic floats to the bottom of the ocean? Small animals eat the microplastics, and bigger animals eat them until we find it accumulates in the fish we eat. That’s a great case for going vegetarian to me. What is the cost of that pollution? Who will clean it up and who will pay for it?
There isn’t any accounting for this aspect of our GDP. Trump will never tell you the costs of deregulation on the environment because he can’t calculate it. He doesn’t want to calculate it. We’re all supposed to be happy in our homes with our big screen TVs, gigantic refrigerators, our beds, our plastic clothes and carpets, and the piles of toys we buy for our kids. And that is just a start.
Go to any construction site and you’ll see a dumpster there. All the waste from homebuilding goes in there. Drywall, wood, plastic packaging, PVC pipe, carpet, empty buckets of paint, used caulking tubes, and anything else that cannot be used again, winds up in the dumpster. And then that goes to a landfill. For every single home we build. That’s negative GDP.
I have two kids, and they have a few boxes of toys. We bought those toys in kits and I know now that none of those kits can be put back together again. Those kits came in packages, and though we put the opened packages in the recycle bin, I’m not even sure that they were recycled. I see the toys in the local supermarket lining the aisles. I see all the gizmos and gadgets and I see what I call, “landfillers”. Most of that stuff is going to a landfill someday. Lost, forgotten, forever. Is that GDP?
What about our cellphones? The best estimate I’ve found is that there are at least 2 billion active cell phones on the planet. But this estimate doesn’t include all of the cellphones we toss when we’re done. Where do they go? Probably that smoldering pit in China. Is that GDP?
I spent the better part of two days working on a project at home. The idea is to hang a canopy in our patio. I bought posts, mounts for the posts, a canopy, and hardware. It seems pretty simple, right? Weather treat the posts. Mount the hardware on the posts. Mount the posts on the concrete.
Well, I didn’t use the right size drill for the screws, so I went through a few screws before I could get all the loops mounted on the posts. Then I started working on the mounts. I bought Tapcon screws for concrete to secure the mounts to the concrete. But they were 3" long and somehow, I had the good fortune to hit rebar on several of the holes I drilled. I kept going through drill bits and learned that I needed a rebar cutting drill. I spent most of my weekend working on that. I’m still not done. I’m in the weeds.
That is where we are now. We’re in the weeds. Awash in plastic waste. Walking through an atmosphere that has tiny plastic particles, I mean, just think of how the tires on our cars grind rubber into dust (peeling out, blue smoke?). Our industries create CO2 by the tons every day, and there is no apparent stop to it in sight. And every time we create something to sell, we create waste. We’re very deep in the weeds, and I’ve only talked about a sliver of all of the damage we’re doing to the ecosystem that supports us.
I think it’s time for us to use full cost accounting for GDP. When we create anything for sale, we need to consider the costs of environmental damage, recycling or reclamation. Every business needs to be thinking about the entire lifecycle of their products. They need to go beyond the shelf. Business needs to consider where their product goes when it’s no longer of use, how to reclaim it and how to recycle it. And if they can’t figure that out, the government will have to do it, because apparently, capitalism doesn’t pay the costs to clean up after itself.
I think if we used whole cost accounting to figure out GDP, we‘d’ be deeply in the red for at least a generation or two. That might seem really depressing if you’re a whale or a shark on Wall Street. But the kids, our kids, need to know we’re thinking of what happens to the stuff we create and what that does to the earth. Nature does this already. Nothing goes to waste in nature.
We have to figure out how to clean up after ourselves. We have to figure out the complete lifecycle of what we sell, what we call GDP. Or we’ll never get out of the red.