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Related Words, Beliefs, Background

Worldview Theme #40: 

              Environmental Economics

alphabetical listing: A to K 

  alphabetical listing, continued: L to Z
Contrast Worldview Themes #40 and #25 --   these themes involve orientations, beliefs or behavior that are (more or less) diametrically opposed!

acid rain--while natural rainfall is slightly acidic, atmospheric chemical reactions can turn nitrogen oxides, from high temperature combustion, and sulfur oxides, from burning coal, into dilute nitric and sulfuric acids creating acid rain. This can cause serious damage in both the natural world (to forests, aquatic ecosystems, etc.), and man-made world (to monuments, concrete structures, etc.). 

air pollution--refers to contaminants (chiefly chemical and particulate) that human activities directly or indirectly add to the atmosphere that makes it unhealthy for humans and living things.  Burning of fossil fuels--particularly for transportation--is a major source of such pollution.  While big city smog is an obvious manifestation of local air pollution problems, it also produces regional acid rain and ozone depletion problems, and global climate change.  Besides causing and aggravating respiratory problems, air pollution annually kills 2.4 million people worldwide according to World Health Organization estimates.  Some of these deaths can be attributed to indoor air pollution, caused by cigarette smoke, outgassing from building materials, cancer causing radon gas entering through foundations, etc.

bads -- the opposite of “goods” as in the economic phrase “goods and services”. In contrast to purchasing goods, people generally seek to avoid or get rid of bads (such as garbage, air pollutants, toxic waste, etc)

biodiversity -- a term that refers to the biological diversity and genetic variation present in an ecosystem -- be it tiny biological community or the whole biosphere. It can be gauged by counting the number of species the ecosystem contains. Preserving biodiversity can be important to the stability of the ecosystem, and may have practical benefits in that little studied or unknown species can be sources of new drugs for medical treatments, food crops, inspiration for engineering design, etc.  Besides habitat destruction, and genetic manipulation, humans threaten biodiversity with intentional or unintentional introduction of species not native to an ecosystem (invasive species)-- increasingly a problem with growing tourism and globalization of recent decades.

biofuels--hydrocarbons derived from plants, or plants as processed by animals. They include ethanol from corn / sugarcane, methanol from wood wastes, methane from animal manure, diesel from vegetable oil, etc. While such renewable energy comes in solid, liquid, and gaseous forms, and can be used for heating, cooking, electricity production, etc, most energy experts believe its greatest potential is in using liquid biofuels for transportation.  While burning biofuels produces carbon dioxide, living plants associated with biofuel production remove as much greenhouse gas from the atmosphere when alive as they put back into it when burned.  Ethanol from corn is increasingly linked with rising food prices and seen as a net energy loser. 

cap and trade -- a scheme, often involving a legally binding agreement, by which a limit ( cap) is placed on the amount of some pollutant allowed to be released into the environment and those involved in generating or sequestering that pollutant are allowed to decide, using an otherwise free market approach (trade), how to allocate related economic activity.

capital -- an economics term referring to accumulated goods and resources (or their value) devoted to the production of other goods or set aside to produce income. Capital can take the form of money, raw materials, buildings, equipment, inventories, etc. While economists have long distinguished between “physical capital” and “human capital”, some have recently extended this scheme to include “natural capital”.

carbon dioxide capture and storage--a new technology that could keep the carbon dioxide generated by burning cheap and abundant coal from being released into the atmosphere and aggravating global warming--instead it would be captured and stored underground.  It is believed that use of such technology, currently at the research and development stage, would add 30 % to 60% to the cost of electricity from coal-fired power plants.

carbon footprint, annual --a measure of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide CO2 released into the atmosphere per year due to one's purchases, resource consumption,  fossil fuel energy use (which releases CO2 as a byproduct of combustion), and other relevant environmental impacts.  It includes both direct (e.g. gasoline powered auto travel) and indirect (e.g. electricity use from coal-fired power plants).  Per capita carbon footprints in affluent countries (in metric tons CO2/ yr person) include: 20 for the USA, 17 for Canada,  around 9 for England, Germany, and Japan, and only 6 for France.  (Note one ton of carbon = 3.7 tons of CO2)

carbon tax -- refers to taxing individuals and corporations for the carbon dioxide (greenhouse gas) pollution that their fossil fuel dependent activities put into the atmosphere.  Such pollution taxes seek to incorporate environmental costs into the market system. 

climate change--refers to regional / global changes in climate over the last few decades and, more importantly, in the future.  Generally the world is warming--a trend that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) feels is (with 90 to 95% certainty) likely to have (in some part) been caused by human activities: most notably the combustion of fossil fuels leading to an enhanced greenhouse effect.  Climate change is most evident in the arctic, where polar ice, glaciers, and permafrost are melting.  Computer model projections call for both steadily increasing temperatures and changes / greater variability in regional weather patterns.  While humans may be able to adapt to climate change, ecologists are particularly concerned about the ability of many living things to do so. They note that the time scales needed for evolutionary adaptations for larger life forms are typically much longer than the decades / centuries over which this climate change is predicted to over.  The result could be widespread ecosystem disruption, extinction of many species, and loss of biodiversity.

debt for nature swap -- foreign debt held by an organization is exchanged for a typically larger amount of domestic debt , which is then put toward financing preserving naturally beautiful areas or resources under pressure to be exploited in Third World debtor countries

deforestation--cutting trees and clearing forests, activities having both local and global negative environmental effects.  Locally wildlife habit and biodiversity is reduced; globally, since trees absorb carbon dioxide, both the absence of these trees and their burning (as in slash and burn clearing of land for farming operations) leads to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide which aggravates the global warming / climate change problem.

Earth's natural cycles--study of that very complex system, the roughly 8000 miles in diameter spherical planet Earth, is facilitated by considering its numerous subsystems--some of which are naturally conceptualized as cycles of matter moving within and between the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere.  Driven by input of solar energy, especially critical to life is the closed system cycling of six chemicals--providing individual oxygen, water, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur cycles. The key to understanding the appearance of the Earth's surface landforms--and operating over a much longer time frame--is the rock cycle.   

ecological debt -- refers to irreplaceable resources being consumed or natural cycles disrupted in an impossible or difficult to fix manner by human activities. While people today benefit from the consumption or the activity, the consequences of ecological debt incurred today will be left to future generations to deal with. Examples: hundreds or thousands of years from now people 1) might have to deal with highly radioactive nuclear waste that escapes repositories, a legacy of today’s nuclear generated electricity, 2) will no longer burn fossil fuels to power automobiles, the fossil fuel era will be over, the vast quantity of this huge resource, that it took nature millions of years to produce, having been consumed by human beings in a brief few hundred year period; 3) will suffer through uncomfortably hot summers, contend with incredibly strong hurricanes in coastal areas, and have memories of parts of the world long ago flooded by rising sea levels -- all resulting from the global warming , a legacy of long ago massive burning of fossil fuels and associated release of its carbon dioxide gas / greenhouse effect enhancing byproduct;  4) will live in a much less biologically diverse world--the result of human activity having caused the extinctions of millions of species!

ecosystem services--a term used in environmental economics / green accounting to quantitatively value the services and products that nature provides (natural capital,  natural processes, etc.)  that conventional economics ignores.  For example, marshlands / wetlands provide a natural water regulation service whose flood control value (along with other values) humans conceivably could recognize in land use planning.   

energy efficiency -- the amount of energy that goes to perform a useful service divided by the total amount of energy input into the task. For example, for every 100 units of electrical energy that goes into powering an old-fashioned incandescent light bulb, only four of those units show up as useful light energy given off. The efficiency of this energy conversion is thus 4%. What happens to the rest of the energy ? The remaining 96% of the total energy input is wasted (here as waste heat energy) In contrast, compact fluorescent light bulbs are around 20% efficient -- so more of the electrical energy input goes for producing light, less is wasted. Improving the miles per gallon of vehicles is the increasing energy efficiency measure that globally would save the most energy. 

environmental impact analysis -- a procedure for 1) collecting information about the proposed development, project or land use and its goals / objectives, 2) identifying possible impacts of its implementation in various areas (mainly environmental, but depending upon the scale of the project also perhaps cultural, economic, social, political, etc), 3) assessing impacts and identifying tradeoffs, 4) formulating, then examining other alternatives to the proposed development, with quantitative models and forecasts, 5) making recommendations including designating a preferred alternative that best meets goals / objectives while minimizing impacts / other concerns , and 6) making plans for monitoring performance. Legislation may require that this be done before certain projects can be carried out on government land.

environmental racism--a majority uses it power to make policies that disproportionately subject minorities to pollution / environmental hazards.

fossil fuels--the hydrocarbons (derived from ancient plants) stored in coal, oil, and natural gas which can be burned to release energy.  Over 85% of society's energy needs are met in this way. While reserves of oil and natural gas are dwindling--some argue that global oil production has peaked and will begin to decline --enough coal exists to power civilization for hundreds more years.  Environmentalists hope that most of that coal will remain in the ground: burning all of it--and releasing the greenhouse effect enhancing carbon dioxide gas associated with fossil fuel combustion--will produce unbearable global warming / climate change they argue. 

free lunch, there is no such thing as a--refers to the belief that neither a person nor a society can truly get something for nothing: even if something appears to be free there are always hidden costs. The costs may have to be paid in the future, someplace far away, by someone else, be distributed over many people, or they may show up in another form (such as an opportunity cost, environmental cost, increased disorder, etc.)  The physical basis for this belief--which becomes a principle for ecologists and others studying closed systems--can be found in the laws of thermodynamics.  Economists link it to opportunity costs being incurred when choices are made. (If something is free, no opportunities are forfeited!) 

Green / Environmental Movement--a movement that blossomed in the 1960s with growing concerns about environmental pollution and manmade destruction of natural beauty, which, by the start of the 21st century had developed a political dimension with the formation of green parties in many countries. The chief goal of this movement is the development and maintenance of a sustainable society. It hopes to bring this about democratically by applying ecological wisdom and economic thinking that no longer ignores, but rather heavily factors in the environment.  Minimizing pollution, promoting efficient use of natural resources, recycling, shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy, protecting biodiversity, and helping affluent western societies transition from wasteful, destructive multinational profit-minded corporate driven consumerism / globalization to more environmentally sound, ethical, socially just, sustainable economies are important goals of this movement.

 greenhouse effect --an important heat trapping mechanism. It works as follows: The sun’s visible light readily passes through either glass in a greenhouse or the Earth’s atmosphere. But upon striking a surface (soil, the ground, etc) and being absorbed, the energy that is reradiated by this surface as it heats up is different in wavelength from visible sunlight. Specifically it is called infrared radiation and has a longer wavelength. This infrared radiation does not so easily pass back out through the glass or atmosphere. In the case of the atmosphere, it is trapped by greenhouse gases -- most notably water vapor and carbon dioxide. So with more energy coming in from the sun than escapes back to space, a temperature increase results. 

greenhouse effect, enhanced --In the last 100 years human fossil fuel combustion has put extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and enhanced this greenhouse effect. The result has been a slight increase in average global temperature, less than one degree Celsius.  With human activities pouring increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the world continues to warm. Based on current trends, computer models project future global warming of one to six  more degrees in the next century. Such warming is expected to bring significant global climate change, disrupting both natural ecosystems and human society / comfort. People can keep this projected disruption to a minimum by using fossil fuel energy more efficiently and increasingly switching from it to renewable energy.

greenhouse gases, other--carbon dioxide gets the attention, but humans also put increasing amounts of other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere--notably methane, released in agricultural activities and many times as potent. A greater concern is that warming of the Arctic will free methane trapped in permafrost --which some feel could be catastrophic! 

green national product -- a proposed index of sustainable economic welfare obtained by making certain adjustments to gross national product -- most notably ones that factor in depletion of natural resources and any long-term environmental damage associated with economic activities.

gross national product -- the annual market value of a country’s total domestic and foreign economic output -- including all end goods and services purchased. It is often used to gauge economic well being.

human capital -- investment made in people, including improving their productive capabilities and health due to investments in job training, education or medical care.

hydroelectric--electricity generated when falling water turns a generator.  Employing well known technology, it is renewable and inexpensive. Its prospects for growth are not as great as other renewable sources such as solar or wind, since (especially in the developed world) most rivers with large hydropower potential have already been dammed.

kilowatt-hour (kwh)--the unit of electrical energy that power companies use in billing consumers (for total kwh usage at some price per kwh, say $.10 per kwh).  A 100 watt light bulb left on for 10 hours would use 100 watts x 10 hours = 1000 watt hours = 1 kilowatt-hour of electrical energy.  .

  market economy -- a private, free-enterprise system based on independent consumer agents, a price system, and economic forces of supply and demand

natural capital -- is to be distinguished from manmade capital and human capital. Natural capital includes natural resources (air, water, soil, forests, minerals, fossil fuels, fish, etc) and the biodiversity of natural living ecosystems (grasslands, wetlands, ocean coral reefs, etc.)

non-economic variables -- things important in the human world but difficult to quantify or put a monetary value on -- including environmental, educational, health, cultural, aesthetic, sociological, political factors.

nonrenewable resources--irreplaceable natural resources whose amount--for all practical purposes--is limited. Examples include fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas, etc), iron ore, copper, etc.  For the fossil fuel most important to the global economy--oil--speculation abounds as to whether world oil production has already peaked and is about to decline (as pessimists claim), or won't peak for another two decades or so (as optimists believe.)  Unless replacements / alternatives can be readily phased in, economic disruption spurred by higher prices for dwindling resources could accompany decline in production of such non-renewable resources.

opportunity cost--an economics concept that puts the cost of resources used in a certain way at the value of what these resources could have brought in or produced if they had instead been used in some alternative way (deemed to be the best). It represents the most highly valued opportunity forfeited when a choice is made.

overshoot and collapse -- a phenomenon often seen by ecologists in studying ecosystems. It occurs when the numbers of a certain species dramatically rise, exceed the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, and then fall suddenly. Their numbers can recover eventually, provided the demands on the environment were not such that the carrying capacity is permanently degraded.

ozone depletion--refers to manmade chemicals--most notably chlorofluorocarbons--that destroy upper atmosphere ozone which shields life on the ground from dangerous ultraviolet radiation.  International agreements reached in the early 1990s have apparently helped stabilize such ozone levels and the problem is not viewed with the serious alarm it once was.

population growth concerns -- Reportedly since the days of the Babylonians in 1600 BC.--when the human population was around 35 million-- people have worried about the possibility of a growing population exceeding the capability to feed people. Typically the former grows exponentially (1, 2, 4, 8, etc) while the latter increases but arithmetically (1,2,3,4, etc) -- as Thomas Malthus pointed out in 1798. A few years later in 1804 the human population reached one billion; by 1927 it had doubled to two billion. The doubling time of 123 years is consistent with an average annual growth rate of around 0.6 % per year. The next doubling to four billion took roughly 47 years, consistent with an average annual growth rate of around 1.5 % per year. The growth rate peaked around 1970 at 2.1 % per year. By 2005 it had fallen to 1.2 % per year, and the human population stood at 6.5 billion people.  If that growth rate continues, by 2050 there will be 11.7 billion people; if the growth rate continues to fall, as projected, by 2050 there will be 9.1 billion people. How many people can the planet support? Answers vary. Many environmentalists feel that the current population is excessive and that human activities are altering the global climate and causing dangerous disruptions of natural cycles. Currently enough grain is grown to feed 10 billion people a vegetarian diet.

protein production, inefficient--the amount of grain (in pounds) that must be fed to animals to produce a given amount of meat / protein (say one pound) varies from an inefficient factor of seven or more for feedlot beef to a more respectable just over two for poultry, to just under two for certain species of (fish farm produced) fish.  Given that the modern farming practices behind grain production are highly energy and water intensive (typically 1/2 ton of water is needed to produce one pound of grain), and that around 38% of grain worldwide is fed to animals to produce meat for human consumption, there is a direct link between increases in meat consumption and increases in water, energy--and thus increases in greenhouse gas pollutants (from the fossil fuel energy inputs).  According to the UN's  Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock production is responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions.  And University of Chicago researchers have found that the typical American (heavily meat based) diet is responsible for an additional 1.5 extra tons of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse emissions per person per year beyond those associated with a no meat diet. To put this number in perspective, it exceeds the amount of greenhouse pollutants saved by switching from a standard sedan to an energy efficient hybrid vehicle.  

recycling--instead of throwing out / trashing certain materials (newsprint, cardboard, office paper, aluminum cans, plastics, glass, metals, etc.) they are instead taken to a recycling center where they are sold / returned to manufacturers for reuse.  The practice saves both non-renewable resources and energy, and can reduce pollution and problems associated with landfills / dumps.  Food scraps, leaves, tree trimmings and other biodegradable waste can be recycled--in this case, returned to the ground to enrich the soil--through composting or anaerobic digestion processes involving micro-organisms.  

renewable resources -- natural resources which are continually being replaced or replenished by natural processes ultimately driven by solar energy. Examples include wind energy, biofuels, hydropower, forest cover, etc.

scarcity--a condition that exists when peoples' "wants" exceed the limited resources available to satisfy them.  The related need to decide how limited resources are allocated leads to rationing and a means for doing so.  Price is one such rationing device. People compete  for what is scarce, and in making choices incur opportunity costs. 

small is beautiful -- a philosophy popularized by E.F. Schumacher in the early 1970s, who himself was inspired by Gandhi. . It is a philosophy of enoughness, appreciating both human needs and limitations, and appropriate use of technology. It grew out of Schumacher’s study of village based economics and economic thinking that he later termed “Buddhist Economics”. In this regard he faults conventional economic thinking for failing to consider the most appropriate scale for an activity, and blasts notions that “growth is good”, and that “bigger is better”. He similarly questions the appropriateness of using mass production in developing countries, promoting instead “production by the masses”. He was one of the first economists to question the appropriateness of using GNP to measure human well being, and pointed out that “the aim ought to be to obtain the maximum amount of well being with the minimum amount of consumption”

solar energy utilization--Meeting human technological societal energy needs using so-called renewable energy sources involves harnessing today's solar energy, whereas using fossil fuels involves drawing on the solar energy that millions of years ago was captured by the ancient plants.  While renewable energy resources such as wind, hydroelectric, wood and other biofuels represent indirect solar energy utilization, it can be used directly either for passive heating or in active systems to produce heat and electricity.  Its potential is enormous. One study concluded that photovoltaic and concentrating solar collectors covering 19% of suitable land in the American Southwest could economically meet 69% of US electricity needs and 35% of total energy needs.  Mass production of thin film (an alternative to silicon crystal) photovoltaics may bring cost breakthroughs.    

sustainable development -- a type of development that hopefully allows future generations’ standard of living and quality of life to be at least as good as the present generation.

tragedy of the commons--a term popularized by Garrett Hardin in a 1968 article, refers to users of a common resource--like air, the oceans, grazing land, etc.--selfishly polluting or overusing it, and thus degrading its capability to serve the common good.  Hardin felt the problem was that since no one privately owned the common resource, no one felt a corresponding responsibility to protect it, and that even if nearly everyone could be persuaded to restrain themselves, a small number of exploiters could ruin the commons for everyone else. 

wind energy--use of this clean, renewable resource to generate electricity has increased by over five times since 2000 to roughly 100,000 megawatts worldwide in 2008. Costs have dropped by a factor of ten or more in the last three decades. Recently some long-term supply contracts have been signed in the U.S. for as little as three cents per kilowatt--hour!  One particularly promising possible use of such electricity is to charge hybrid (or all electric) car batteries--an application which Lester Brown argues could eventually cut U.S. gasoline use by 85% and save consumers $ billions given that the cost of such off peak electricity is the equivalent of fifty cents a gallon gasoline!


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