“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” Greta Thunberg, Time’s Person of the Year, made that direct assertion in September before the U.N. General Assembly.
Thunberg’s message, however dramatic, is an important one; we can’t ignore environmental concerns when making economic decisions.
It’s also a message that has been made in more local venues including the Rio Grande Valley, where organized efforts have been made to block and even reverse progress that has been made to allow three companies to build liquefied natural gas export terminals at the Port of Brownsville. Environmental arguments have been used in opposition to bring other industries to South Texas, including perhaps a metalworks operation like those more common to the 1970s “Rust Belt” rimming the Great Lakes. They are vital arguments, reminders that all decisions must be holistic; the value of any industrial development is reduced by any costs related to repairing the damage it might create on the environment or on public health.
However, it’s wrong to paint such arguments as either-or propositions.
Thunberg’s request that people simply listen to the experts regarding the possibility of climate change should be heeded. However, they aren’t the only experts who deserve our attention.
The young Swedish environmental activist’s alarming message isn’t wrong; people indeed are dying because of polluted water and other environmental issues. Many of those deaths, however, aren’t caused by industrial waste, but rather by poverty.
All across the world, millions of people die of simple, preventable diseases because they simply don’t have the resources to prevent them. An outbreak of measles or the flu can virtually wipe out an entire village in some areas of Africa or Asia because the people don’t have the vaccines needed to prevent them or the drugs needed to treat them. Thousands die or suffer from illnesses that we often treat with cheap, over-the-counter medications because they live in squalor, lacking the resources necessary to purify their water or filter and remove their waste. Many cases are exacerbated because a lack of healthy food leaves people more susceptible to disease and more severely affected by a viral or bacterial disease.
Such pockets of poverty aren’t so far away. Hundreds of colonias still exist in South Texas and other areas in our own country. A 2011 Columbia University study determined that 4.5% of all deaths in the United States are directly attributable to poverty.
This creates challenges for officials in the Valley and other areas with high rates of poverty. The best way to improve the lives — and health — of local residents will always be economic development.
Short-term goals of job and wealth creation, however, can’t create long-term environmental or health concerns, such as lung diseases prevalent in heavy coal and petroleumproducing areas. So while new business should be encouraged, it also should be monitored to ensure that future health isn’t sacrificed to immediate wealth.
It’s a tough balance, one that requires all the facts.