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Oil, economy and health

January 11, 2013

I’ve just been writing a submission to the EPA against the proposed black sands mining on the Taranaki Bight, so this is on my mind:

I think we are trapped in a world-view that encourages us to not care about the environment or people by adhering to the idea that money will save everything. We are forced to pit the economy against the environment as if they are two beings battling for supremacy. We are often shown the Venn Diagram of ‘sustainability’ which shows sustainability as sitting where the economy, environment and society intersect. A nice little green niche which some can occupy if they wish.

English: Balance of Sustainability

But sustainability isn’t like this at all. This diagram suggests that the economy and society live completely outside and independent of the environment. It treats the economy as if it is equally important to the other two, rather than as a tool designed to serve society. The economy doesn’t exist without human society, in the same way that human society cannot exist without the environment.

But this is the view through which we interpret our world at the moment. And this view allows us to play off the needs of society and the environment with the ‘needs’ of the economy. We believe what we are told about economic growth being vital so that money will ‘trickle down’ to the most deprived in society and that the more we make, the more there will be for us to spend on ‘protecting the environment’.

However, money doesn’t follow the laws of nature. Its tendency is not to ‘trickle down’ but to ‘flood up’ to those for whom this view suits best. So when I think about the mining of black sands on the North Island’s West Coast, or deep-sea oil drilling in New Zealand’s waters, I am sure that the economic argument of how much we have to gain is fundamentally flawed.

I hesitate to liken the exploitation of the natural environment to rape – I have never been raped and I don’t imagine I have any capacity to really understand how that could feel – but from the perspective I have of current events, I feel that the Police attitude towards the young victims of the ‘Roast Busters’ was not dissimilar to our regard of our natural resources – if it’s going to go flaunting all that beautiful stuff, what do you expect?

This world-view allows us the capacity to care less about people and planet than about other peoples’ money. Which relates directly back to the health system. Caring for people is not a huge profit making exercise (unless it’s the wealthy elderly) so we have had to manipulate it to suit the economic system. We have created this ‘Fee-For-Service’ model which concentrates on sickness rather than health, turning treatments into commodities and patients into consumers. Hence you better be a fast-talker cos your GP only has seven and a half minutes to spend with you.

But the demands on the health system are becoming too great to bear. This world-view encourages all sorts of health-depleting behaviours (the cheapest food is the most nutritionless, working longer and longer hours etc) and a nonchalant attitude towards the health of the environment so its easy to see why so many people take such little responsibility for their own health.

A better, more realistic view is that the economy is totally dependent on society and the environment. Degrading either of these two reduces our potential for long-term economic output and enhancing them raises that potential. Environmental and societal health should be at the top of our agenda, because a healthy society reduces all sorts of other costs to us; of course health system costs, but even crime, civic care, education and more. The way this looks in a Venn diagram is like this. The economy is our servant, not the other way around.

English: Sustainability diagram based on the


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