What’s the environment got to do with the economy?

We’ve not done a particularly good job at treating the environment well in the past few centuries. We’ve moved from a world in which people produced just enough for themselves and their families, to one where half the food in the world gets wasted. As economies went through industrialization, moving from relying on agriculture to manufacturing, we seem to have forgotten that just because we’re able to produce something quicker, cheaper, and bigger, doesn’t mean we have to.

But why shouldn’t we? Industrialization has created millions of jobs and industries which never would have existed in an agricultural economy. It’s allowed us to live in a world where people can specialize in the thing they’re good at, and use the money they earn to buy goods that they would never have been able to produce themselves. Computers, washing machines, cars, planes, clothes, food packaging, and endless other items that we’ve now got the ability to manufacture on an enormous scale have improved quality of life for people across the globe. Why does it matter that they’ve had to burn some fossil fuels  to make that happen?

The problem is, we’ve created a global economy that’s completely unsustainable. Worse, the people who are responsible aren’t necessarily the ones who pay the price. Climate change affects weather patterns, sea levels, air quality, and ocean temperatures around the world for years beyond when the damage is done, no matter where the damage was done, which isn’t exactly fair.

The question is whether we can have all the benefits of modern life without the environmental harm that currently goes along with it. It’s hard to tell how our day-to-day activities really affect something as intangible as climate change, but unfortunately, they do. Many of the economic decisions we make all the time, from the products we buy and sell to the form of transport we choose to take, or the energy provider we use, affect the demand for the fossil fuels which cause climate change.

Some economists think that putting green energy and technologies at the foundation of our economies will do the trick; others go a step further, saying we need to ‘degrow’ our economies by scaling back some of the perks we’ve got used to in modern economies to fix the problem. More and more scientists and engineers are working on so-called green technology, or ways to produce the same level of output we are now but without the environmental impact; but it’s a very hard and very large job.