Product Reviews from a Scientific Perspective

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Review of The Constant Economy by Zac Goldsmith, Part III

Start at the beginning, Part I

Goldsmith examines how industrial methods, from fishing to farming, greatly damage our environment and health to the detriment of long-term profit itself. The use of pesticides and antibiotics in non-organic farming results in millions of tax dollars being spent on water pollution clean-up. Industrial fisheries employ sixty-mile-long lines, or ‘draggers’ that destroy coral reefs simply by rolling over them. By destroying coral reefs, which act as fishing nurseries, and eliminating much of the adult fish, reproduction has been choked. In some areas, the destruction is so severe that the government had to ban fishing for decades so that fish can repopulate, such as in Newfoundland.

Goldsmith also examines our usage of distribution of energy, including how the status quo is incredibly inefficient and certain technologies are more efficient than others. Having large power plants, instead of a decentralized power system, results in energy being sent over long distances. When electricity is sent over long distances, communities lose up to 1/3 of the original energy. In contrast, a grid tapping into a diversity of power sources from the private sector optimizes localization and technological innovation. Importantly, Goldsmith notes that fossil fuels are subsidized anyway, and therefore not actually cheaper; if we were simply to shift that subsidization towards green technology, countries would save tax money in the long-term. Finally, Goldsmith criticizes nuclear power for the following reasons:
-        The time to build is enormous
-        Nuclear can only supplement a small fraction of energy needs. If, like a car engineer, the appliance cannot use electricity, nuclear is not useful.
-        Nuclear plants are a deadly target for terrorists
-        Nuclear plants are expensive to build
-        [in the long-term, nuclear can only provide us with less than a 100 years worth of energy; it’s simply not sustainable either]
-        All nuclear power plants in history have required heavy public finance because they are economically not competitive; we might as well invest in renewable energy sources instead
 -   [For a different perspective, check out the World Nuclear Association]
Goldsmith also provides many reasons why a reliance on technology to solve our energy and environmental problems are deeply flawed. In addition to the health dangers of genetically-modified food, Goldsmith examines why self-replicating technologies like genetic-engineered plants or nanotechnologies have the potential to permanently destroy all human-sustaining ecology in the world. For example, a genetically-modified bacterium designed to break down waste vegetation into ethanol outcompeted soil fungi, essential to plant life, and rendered the soil completely infertile. Fortunately, this was in a laboratory setting; had the bacterium been allowed to spread in the rest of the world, all plant life on earth could have theoretically ended.

Finally, everything should be built to last and with as little waste as possible, according to Goldsmith. Goldsmith, in chapter eight, lists many ways that houses can be built to increase energy efficiency up to saving 75% of energy usage. To encourage the reservation of resources, Goldsmith advocates the use of a landfill tax to encourage less package waste and further recycling of materials in selling products. More effective is his idea to tax goods that have a life expectancy of 20% less than the product average.

Great quotations found in the book:

“GDP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” – Robert Kennedy
“Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm they therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commercial fertilizer. The genius of American farm experts is well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.” – Wendell Berry
“We have a temporary aberration called ‘industrial capitalism’ which is inadvertently liquidating its two most important sources of capital: the natural world and properly functioning societies. No sensible capitalist would do that.” – Amory Lovins

Considering that this is probably one of the few books about environmentalism and sustainable economies that are less about the philosophical foundations and more about actual policy implementation, I'd definitely recommend this as a priority for reading. 

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