‘You Cannot Heal Ecosystems Without Ending Poverty’


Ever since 1986, the year I ran for state representative for the first time, I have been working to create a truly sustainable economy. Back in the day, anyone promoting a green economy was labeled as promoting freezing in the dark, so I knew I better have a really good and practical economic plan if I was going to be at all successful running for office. I needed to describe a practical way to end poverty and to end the destruction of global and local ecosystems while creating community prosperity.

The economy I offered in my campaign in rural Maine was based on more local food, healthier forests, better health care, solar energy, and good infrastructure. Pushing the economy in those directions, with local conditions and communities at the heart of the push, is what I offered then, and it is even more important today, although with a much clearer and stronger focus on justice, economic justice, and climate justice. Every day the understanding that a climate justice-based economy works grows, though the dominant economic paradigm is still neoliberal growth. Unfortunately, the old paradigm continues to offer us resource depletion and inequality, with a rolling climate crisis making the likelihood of prosperous communities an ever more distant dream. But still we fight.

I have used a variety of terms to describe the phenomena over the past 37 years, shifting language as our knowledge grows, and as the actions necessary for transformation become more defined. Recently, there has been a slowly growing mainstream acceptance that only with healthy ecosystems, a stable climate, and real efforts to eliminate poverty and create justice will it be possible for communities to prosper. With the rolling climate catastrophe becoming an ever-greater reality, I have had to sharpen my focus, and more and more people are looking at the climate crisis and wondering what the effects of a climate catastrophe will be on the economy. Climate injustice also threatens the basic structure of democracy as only oligarchies win in the fossil fuel game.

You cannot heal ecosystems without ending poverty. You cannot end poverty without healing ecosystems.

For more than 20 years I have explicitly laid out that healing ecosystems and ending poverty go hand in hand, you cannot do one without doing both simultaneously, and this should be the basis of governance. I have also been critiquing economic development planning, specifically focusing on the unintended consequences of the medical-industrial complex; the pretense that constructing buildings is economic development; how injustice is harming communities economically; the beneficial role of environmental regulations on the economy; how the use of real estate to prop up the banking system creates ever greater inequality; and how government policy, instead of directing economic development toward the communities that need it most, seems to direct most of OUR money, and government staff time, into things that make the rich richer, the poor poorer, and the planet a wasteland. Rhode Island is notorious for this kind of poor planning and misdirected effort, with a long train of failures when subsidizing the rich, such as 38 Studios, the Quonset Megaport, and the stadium deals in Pawtucket. Rhode Island’s comprehensive plans are more forward thinking. But the good stuff stays on the shelf and RIDOT wants more roads.

It has been a hard battle. It requires taking on, and using their own language against them, the richest and most powerful interests in the state and the politicians they pay to protect them with campaign contributions. I devoted several years to demolishing the argument that the business climate is important, conclusively showing business climates have a near zero effect on the economic growth rate, though they can be correlated with dismantling social safety nets while increasing pollution and inequality. Click this link for the details.

In many ways the obsession with the business climate instead of the real climate reflects the power of mining, drilling, forestry, real estate, and manufacturing in our politics, with mining states rarely protecting anything related to public health if it gets in the way of dumping mine tailings. The folks who invented business climate rankings very much keep the mine owners in their thoughts as they tell folks how to legislate. They were also racists who told the Republicans how to eliminate democracy, because if we really had a choice would the American people vote to screw themselves by giving it all away to the rich and allow massive pollution?

In my struggle with the powers that pollute and foster inequality, I have over the years cited work by the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and a plethora of nonprofits and think tanks pointing out how these things get in the way of real economic development. Mostly, I have been ignored by the people tasked with making the rich richer on the public dime here in Rhode Island, despite their lack of success in creating a vibrant economy in our communities. Sometimes the only vehicle for progress is stopping some really disastrous development proposal, but we would much rather be building alternatives to the economy of pollution.

The dire straits we find ourselves in due to climate catastrophes seem to be cracking the channels open just a bit, with the mainstream a bit closer to understanding that a green economy has to be the main focus of governmental development efforts. I am hopeful that it will be more fruitful in creating the discussion and actions that are necessary for change. Not that I really believe it, but I am a bit more hopeful than usual, probably because the storm coming is worse and more obvious every day, and it may eventually penetrate some very thick and ideologically rigid skulls when the world burns up around them. But also, because the intellectual underpinnings and community alternatives that point out that we can and should do the right thing are multiplying by the day.

I am talking about efforts to show that unless we get it right with climate and climate justice policies, we may not have much of an economy 50 years down the road. Of course, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council and Koch brothers-funded local think tanks (think Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity) constantly moan how efforts to get right on climate and climate justice will bankrupt us all, but recently some reports such as The Emperor’s New Climate Scenarios, from the Institute and Faculties of Actuaries at England’s University of Exeter, and the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Information’s recent report have blown big holes in that argument, reinforcing what I have argued since 1986: We must stop the climate catastrophe, heal ecosystems, and focus on ending poverty if we are to have prosperity in the future.

We are about to face massive economic dislocations from storms, droughts, wars, and refugees.  Expected economic growth will be massively impacted. Not just by climate but by resource and water shortages. The dislocations will not be evenly distributed throughout the world. The poor will bear the brunt of the disaster in the early years, with the industrialized west holding out just a bit longer, though maybe the folks in Phoenix would disagree. How many grain harvests have to fail? How many civil wars caused by droughts driving farmers to the city do we need to see? How many hurricanes have to deluge major cities before we get that recovering is taking more and more resource, and that the resources we need to rebuild are becoming more expensive and scarcer? When shall we learn that economic democracy, where the people have a real say in what gets done in the community, and an economy geared to ending and mitigating the climate catastrophe, is the only road left to prosperity?

When I and some colleagues did a focus group for Rhode Island Commerce last spring and we talked of these issues, Commerce and their consultants from Camoin Associates were completely flabbergasted by what we offered to them vocally and in links sent as follow-up. I have not yet seen the report they are supposedly writing, but you can be sure they are underplaying the importance of getting it right on climate and climate justice as we lay the foundation for future prosperity in Rhode Island — and pretty much anywhere else on the planet. They are willing to tweak business as usual a bit, but none of them are really understanding that climate and climate justice has to be the main focus of our economic development efforts with other sectors relegated to lower priority.

The executive branch in Rhode Island is run by people with no vision. It is small town chamber of commerce thinking. An economic plan of low taxes for the rich, tax breaks for real estate development, trashing wetlands and forests, more fossil fuels, sports stadiums, and bigger highways has been repeatedly demonstrated to fail our communities. But as it lets the rich steal more it seems to be the plan of the day. As our communities struggle it passes muster for the corporate masters. There are some legislators that get it, but they are not in leadership positions, as the campaign cash flows to those who follow orders from chambers of commerce to subsidize the rich while cutting services to the poor, despite Thomas Piketty reminding us that economies that are more equal work a lot better.

The United States is the perfect example. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the U.S. economy performs best when inequality is low and taxes on the rich are high. But when you say such things in public hearings, the people holding the hearing have their fingers in their ears. We deserve a lot better, but the corporate masters need faster growing profits even if that harms long-term economic prospects for our communities. It is interesting that profits as a percentage of the economy keeps rising while the disasters get worse. Almost like they planned disaster capitalism.

While working on this essay, I came across a report published in May by the McKinsey Global Institute, a globally recognized consulting group. The report, The future of Wealth and Growth hangs in the Balance, was pathetic, offering a variety of scenarios on how to get out of the fix we are in, but despite a paragraph on the growth of alternative energy, there was not one word on how badly the economy will be damaged by the climate crisis and the destruction of forests, and only minimal attention to the role growing inequality plays in harming economies. I wrote them a letter offering to discuss this with them but have received no reply. They clearly do not get it and are willing to lie for their corporate masters.

The way forward is not going to be easy. We live on a resource-constrained planet with 8 billion people. Powerful interests defend the status quo of fossil fuels, the war machine, greater inequality, and the diminishment of democracy. Clean air for asthma-ridden neighborhoods is not on their agenda. Neither are lower temperatures, but if people can no longer work effectively due to bad air and heat stress, if the crops fail, and the water runs out, you cannot make an economy work. We need to get serious, and we are not doing it. But we can, and we will.

Greg Gerritt is the founder/executive director of the Friends of the Moshassuck.


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