In some ways Earth Day/Earth Week reminds me of Sunday and in the Christmas season in the Christian faith. These are the times when we try to do good unto others and to think about how to be a better person.
Yet alas all too likely too many of us go out to do the opposite but to varying degrees afterward. Why? Because unless the evil acts are criminal the only punishment we feel are in our consciences, and the degree by which happens depends on how much of a sociopath that each of us are.
Yet unlike with religious days of observance there is a real hell, a stiff and ultimate price to pay by ignoring the environment. One example of this chilling fact is the Canadian Medical Association's 2008 report No Breathing Room: National Illness Costs of Air Pollution that revealed that many as 21,000 Canadians will have died prematurely that year alone from air pollution, with some 3,000 from acute, short-term exposure. That number will escalate to almost 90,000 by 2031. The financial costs? A staggering $8 billion in 2008, leaping to having accumulated over $250 billion by 2031.
And that's in Canada: a country with 34 million residents or 1/9th the U.S's 309 million population. Do the math from the above statistics and you begin to wonder how come we are killing each other this way and at what cost?
Scarier still, those figures are for airborne pollutants alone. There are then illnesses and deaths, at enormous costs from fouled water and solid waste. Urban sprawl is an insidious contributor to all three. It promotes high auto use and autos are both directly through burning fuels and indirectly via road construction and maintenance and from fuel extraction, refining and transportation big air, water and land pollution sources. Human and pet liquid and solid waste, garbage (like e-waste) and lawn fertilizer and pesticides make for toxic stews. Factor on top of these impacts the climate-changing heat islands, fouling freshwater sources (and requiring dangerous chlorine for purification) added erosion and flooding and the costs of pollution literally shoot into the sky.
The environment, to use the famous quote of economists "ain't a free lunch." Unfortunately right now there are few mechanisms that make polluters pay for the meal. Nothing to prod someone from thinking twice about building and buying sprawling offices and houses on wetlands, served by hulking SUVs, chucking out enormous amounts of trash yet whose acts require the rest of us to pay for the damage--including with our lives and that of our loved ones.
If we truly want to make Earth Day and Earth Week significant--and actionable--then we need to devise polluter (and sprawler)-pay laws and offset that by lower general taxes resulting from less expense-creating waste, i.e. enabling the power of the marketplace to efficiently allocate resources. The more you crap up the air, land and water the bigger the bill. If you want to reduce the costs then find new solutions that enable you to do just that. Can it be any fairer?
Yes, there will be higher costs, such as gas prices and house and lease prices will go up, but roads, office parks and single-family housing has been subsidized for years, at the expense of more efficient rail, city center offices and multifamily homes, thereby distorting the real estate and transportation marketplaces. So why should the rest of us have to fork over our money, directly and indirectly, leading to injuries and premature and painful deaths, for others to "enjoy" these choices?
We can no longer afford to treat Earth Day/Earth Week like an article of faith: if we hope to have a future for ourselves and for future generations.