The Web of Life
It may sound trite to say so, but the Earth is a gift—made in the image of God for His glory and our enrichment. Using it's bounty within reasonable limits, with grateful hearts, is not only necessary, it is an act of worship to Him. This act of worship draws us nearer to Him and to each other, and guarantees a future for our children as well. Furthermore, beyond the many spiritual blessings a connection with creation imparts, there is also the very real scientific question of how much carrying capacity the Earth has—a question we can no longer afford to shirk. Being careless with the natural world out of short-term greed or indifference has consequences.
For many millennia, humans have lived on the Earth in relatively small numbers compared to the Earth's carrying capacity. It is easy to believe under such circumstances that its resources are boundless—and we did, and acted accordingly. Eventually, with the rise of the industrial revolution, our numbers and technical capabilities evolved to the point where we could tax the carrying capacity of the Earth, and our ignorance of our impacts began to catch up with us. Today, it threatens to leave us behind in its wake. An ever growing scientific knowledge base is telling us that the global loss of biodiversity, anthropogenic climate change, shrinking tropical rainforests, and countless other problems cannot be ignored any longer—these things are a wake-up call that our impact on the natural world is greater than it can bear indefinitely.
Scientists debate how long we can continue our current consumption levels, but there is universal agreement among them that we cannot continue to exist on the Earth without mitigating our numbers and our consumption—we must reach a point where we take from the Earth only what it can regenerate long term. The only opposition to such ideas comes from a tiny handful of contrarians who without exception have ideological or profit driven agendas, not scientific ones (e.g. extraction industries, Far-Right special interests, or the Religious Right). But few scientists doubt the larger picture. Ultimately, stewardship of the natural world begins at home with us—our use of resources, the lifestyles we cultivate, and the economies we support.
For better or worse (or both), we live in a Western society where economics—the exchange of cash and/or capital drives everything. One of the consequences of this is that everything must be assigned a dollar value and cannot be acted upon without some sort of cost/benefit analysis. This works well when formulating a business plan for a restaurant or a factory manufacturing consumer goods. It does not work well with things that most people consider to be sacred (human life, or our children's future for instance). Nor does it work well in situations where there is an immediate financial gratification for some today, and the consequences will be suffered by others later.
It is commonplace for instance to see timber companies come to rural areas with the promise of "good jobs" and "economic growth" for local communities, only to pull up roots and leave after having clear-cut entire watersheds and left them with little ability to regenerate themselves. Enormous profits can be made very quickly this way and the costs of maintaining the forest is avoided. Local communities seeking economic growth are often only too happy to welcome them unquestioningly, the siren call of jobs today blinding them to the long-term picture. Soon those jobs and the timber resource that supported them are gone. Only then do they discover that the timber company's promises of "commitment to working people" were far less sincere than they imagined. By then it is of course, too late.
"I am afraid that I don't see much hope for a civilization that is so stupid that it demands a quantitative estimate of the value of its own umbilical cord".
Things like this speak directly to the importance of values in economics and how to assign them in a wise manner.
How should we value nature, and how should economic policies be formulated to reflect this? In other words, to really see the forest, what's the best way to count the trees? Understanding how the economy interacts with the environment has important implications for policy, regulatory, and business decisions. How should our national economic accounts recognize the increasing interest in and importance of the environment? Concern is growing among scientists and ecologists about how the United States and other nations should make these measurements. Recommendations as to how environmental and other non-market measures need to be incorporated into income and product accounts.
Alternative approaches to environmental accounting must be explored, including those used in each of the world's nations, and the many thorny issues involved, such as how to measure the stocks of natural resources and how to value non-market activities and assets. We need to develop a whole new way of thinking about economic growth and value. Measures like the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) do not address the many services nature offers (the air we breathe, for instance, which cannot be meaningfully assigned a dollar value, yet is critical to our well being). Alternative economic measures which take such things into account are needed now more than ever if we are to bequeath to our children a world worth inheriting.
Ultimately, stewardship of the natural world begins at home with us - our use of resources, the lifestyles we cultivate, and the economies we support. This section is devoted to a deeper personal and cultural understanding of this reality—how science, and changed values can help us, as individuals and as communities, to walk more gently on the Earth. Also discussed are the various ideological roadblocks to proper stewardship and the way social structures that we take for granted encourage them.