This is my contribution to a group of Earth Day posts, mostly written by people I have met in the comments section of Small Farm Futures. I encourage you to enjoy the efforts of Jody and Michelle at animasoul, Clem at Gulliver’s Pulse, Brian at The South Roane Agrarian, and of course, Chris at Small Farm Futures.
Everything has a cost. We usually think of the price in dollars, but that actually hides the true cost.
The cost is paid in species, biomass, and ecosystems.
As interest spreads about big ideas like the Green New Deal, Universal Basic Income, single-payer healthcare, pharmacare or dental care—or more local ideas like a highway to Churchill, more ferries on the BC coast, or more vegetables in the far north, the question is always asked, “How will we pay for this?”
That is the wrong question. We should be asking, “How many species will this cost?”
As I wrote in my post on Universal Basic Income, I think this stems from a basic confusion about wealth.
Money is not wealth, money is simply a very elaborately printed IOU note. It has no value except in exchange for real wealth—like salmon, trees, cotton and wool.
Further wealth is created when labour smokes salmon, mills lumber and builds houses or furniture, and knits wool into sweaters or weaves denim for blue jeans—and all those labourers need to eat and be sheltered and clothed with more wealth from nature.
John Michael Greer introduced me to this insight of E.F. Schumacher, that goods produced by nature are the primary goods in any economy, and those produced by human labor are secondary goods.
Greer goes on to extend this framework to tertiary goods, which is simply the pushing of numbers around on computers.
But the thing is, we can’t eat money, and we can’t eat the numbers in the bank’s computer.
Money is simply a convenient, pocket-sized promise we make to trade for real wealth at a later time. Wealth only comes from nature, and from the application of labour to the wealth of nature.
Let me say that again for emphasis—wealth only comes from nature, and from the application of labour to the wealth of nature.
People become rich by extracting wealth from nature and from labour.
In our current economy, that means the rich get rich by killing ecosystems and exploiting people.”1
So dollars are just an IOU for an actual, real, material thing extracted from the ecosphere and modified by human labour.
And it turns out the actual, real material things add up to 92 BILLION tonnes per year—our food, metals, fuels and minerals. But we don’t just poke the earth with a syringe and suck up pure copper and refined gasoline. The situation is actually much more bleak, if we take a wander down resource extraction curves.
Marion King Hubbert became famous as Peak Oilers discussed his prediction that “for an oil-producing area, from an oil-producing province, a nation, or the planet as a whole, the rate of petroleum production of the reserve over time would resemble a bell curve.”
The reasons for this are simple. We live on a finite planet, and we always start with the easy stuff. So we cut down the trees on the flat land first. We collect the oil that is literally bubbling out of the ground. We find three tonne nuggets of copper just lying in a creek bed.
We walk up to an apple tree and pick the low hanging fruit. We never start with the hardest to reach fruit. Our first response is never to get out the orchard ladder. We don’t look at that bubbling pool of oil and decide the next step is invent horizontal drilling.
We pick the easy stuff, and if we develop a taste for it2 we move up the tree. Maybe we stand on a rock. Then we sew a picking bag, then build a ladder.
The picking bag allows us to harvest tens of pounds of apples without wasting time climbing down to empty our pockets, and the ladder gets us up to where the branches are heavy with fruit in the sunshine. We fill our boxes with ease, but then things start to get harder and—at the peak of our technological development—we pick the last apple.
We pick the last apple.3
Let’s look at that three tonne copper nugget again.
The Bingham Canyon Mine is largest and most productive copper producer in the world, and lies in the hills above my relatives in Salt Lake City. Each day 450,000 tons of material are extracted. And each year, 300,000 tons of copper are produced.
Are you following those numbers? That means that one of the finest copper mines in the world is digging up ore that is only 0.18% copper—that is a long way from a three tonne nugget. So, every day, 450,000 tons of the earth are dug up, of which 810 tons are the copper we need for our windmills, electric cars and smart phones.
So we just throw the other 449,910 tons of dirt somewhere else.
In the history of mining, lakes and river valleys have been a convenient place to dump, but it could be a grassland or a desert. Regardless, it is dumped into an ecosystem, the home of countless flora and fauna who used to live there before that mine came.
Now, not everything we extract comes at such a pitiful rate, but the pattern is just the same.
In British Columbia, where I live,4 many First Nations had productive river fisheries. The salmon would swim hundreds of miles inland to spawn, effectively delivering groceries right to the nets, weirs and jaws of human and other fishers lining the river banks.
But with colonization that wasn’t quite enough, and so technology took us up Hubbert’s Curve. Fishing boats with lines and nets, sail power, then steam, then oil. Ever larger winches and engines. And wouldn’t you know it, with this massive extraction from the ocean comes a lot of bycatch. It is not as poor a rate as copper mining, but according to the WWF, about 40% of what we haul on board is not what we were fishing for and much of that is tossed back overboard, dead or dying. I spent a summer purse seining for salmon on a small boat, mostly off Vancouver Island. In one tragic set we brought up a net full of rockfish. These fish are armoured with spines, and punctured a crewmate’s boot when he kicked one. They also live very long—easily a century—and are slow to reproduce. They dwell deep in the cold waters and when they are dragged to the surface, their guts turn inside out with the pressure change.
You shouldn’t eat rockfish, but they are delicacies on many fancy menus. We left hundreds of them dying in our wake.
Anyhow, Hubbert’s point is that we have to do more and more to get less and less, until finally it costs too much to do anything at all and we stop.5
And so let’s talk about that 92 billion tonnes that we extract each year from the ecosphere. As reported, resource extraction is the source of 50% of our greenhouse gasses and 80% of biodiversity loss.
At the rate of the Bingham Canyon Mine, for the 20 million tonnes of copper that are mined globally each year, about 11 billion tonnes of mine waste would be dumped into the ecosphere.
“Into the ecosphere” is a pretty smooth phrase. What I really mean is that 11 BILLION TONNES of copper mining wastes are dumped on TOP of animals and plants, rivers, creeks, marshes, glades, dens and nests. Just for copper.
For fish, of the 90 million tonnes of seafood caught each year—which doesn’t include the rogue, uncounted fisheries—millions and millions more tonnes are bycatch, thrown back dead or dying.
And of course this does not count the ghost nets, cut loose to entangle whales, the bottom draggers that rip up coral reefs or kelp forests.
So. 92 billion tonnes is a staggering number. It is probably double anything that could be vaguely considered sustainable. And it is just a fraction of the true amount we dig, and drag out of the planet, only to throw overboard or dump to the side.
As with all diminishing returns, it is only getting worse—but this is how we earn money.
This is how we pay for our roads and hospitals and schools and televisions.
We pay for those things with biodiversity loss. As Daniel Quinn says:
It’s obvious that it costs a lot of money and energy to produce all the food we need to maintain our population at six billion. But there is an additional, hidden cost that has to be counted in life forms. As I’ve said, it’s conservatively estimated that as many as 200 species are becoming extinct every day as a result of our impact on the world. Put plainly, in order to maintain the biomass that is tied up in the six billion of us, we have to gobble up 200 species a day.
This—this shitty, unequal, unjust continent of strip malls requires 200 species a day.
So when we talk about growing our economy, when we talk about eliminating poverty, when we talk about expanding manufacturing, we are talking about more than 200 species a day.
And so I love the folks at Strong Towns who ask how we can build places that are productive, not extractive.
I love how they do the math—every roadwork, every arena or stadium, every fire hydrant has a cost. Where will the money come from? Most towns never produce enough money to pay for their own streets and water systems—they are just quietly mouldering into bankruptcy, hoping for the feds to send them a few species worth of infrastructure money.
I love it because they strip the conversation down to something that feels very real to me.
If a fox spends more energy chasing mice than it earns from eating mice, it starves to death and dies.
Where is the money for the Green New Deal, or the hydrogen highway, or total electrification going to come from? I am not fucking talking about who we are going to tax. It is going to come from wealth, extracted from nature and worked by labour. It is going to come at the cost of at least 200 species per day, every day.
The finest ideas of equality and justice cost 200 species per day.
I am right on board with lining the billionaires and industrialists up at Madame Guillotine. But I am not on board with using their billions to
build electric cars kill 200 more species every day.
400 in two day. 600 in three days. 800 in four days.
In just five days, one thousand species are lost forever.
The people who should be my comrades foolishly drone that debt doesn’t matter,6 forgetting that some accounts can never be paid back—once they are gone, they are gone.
This is perhaps the purest source of my grief. I don’t see the world through rosy lenses, but rather as species, and ecosystems of relationships—so every time I read another godforsaken call for more good things for more good people I can’t help but weep.
In addition to your examples of mining and fishing, the impact on species from agriculture is significant. In fact, agriculture directly affects more land area than any other human activity. Almost 38% of the earth’s land has been converted to agriculture, whereas just under 1% is covered by urban development and 0.4% is affected by mining.