Our sun has been warming this planet for billions of years; transferring its energy to plants, which, in turn, over the millennia became fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. A few hundred thousand years ago, modern humans learned about combustion and fire and began liberating the stored energy in wood to warm themselves in caves. Then, in the 1700s, a series of inventors discovered how to transfer heat energy to steam and mechanical motion and the Industrial Revolution was born. It changed the world.
There were unintended consequences that accompanied the Revolution and the release of billions of years of stored energy in the short space of 300 years. One of them was carbon dioxide, a colorless, odorless greenhouse gas that traps heat energy in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide concentrations in the pre-industrial era were approximately 280 parts per million, but they’ve increased with industrial activity, climbing throughout the 20th century to over 400 parts-per-million, which is where they are today. With these increases has come a slow warming of the planet.
Scientists are concerned that we are already at the point of no return and that melting glaciers, rising sea levels and weather disturbances over the next century will have catastrophic consequences for millions of people in this country and the entire world. Climate change is real and, while there are many factors, human activity is a major contributor.
None of this should be a surprise. Since the 1960s a series of studies warned of the perils and economic costs of ignoring climate and environmental change. In 1972 a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published “The Limits to Growth.” Its authors, with expertise across many disciplines, projected that unrestrained economic growth and consumption were on a collision course with a finite planet. Their modeling of the then-current trends pointed to an environmental and economic crisis in the second half of the 21st century. I read that book in 1972 and still have a copy. Nothing in the ensuing 44 years since it was published has caused me to change my views that the book and its predictions are on course.
I had expected the warnings would attract attention and bring about change in our economic models and our approaches to economic activity, but outside the scientific community, with some exception, the promotion of economic growth has become the commonsense approach to solving all of our problems, despite, paradoxically, the environmental damage it’s caused.
It might be different if all of us benefited directly from the additional carbon dioxide and the other environmental challenges created by economic growth and expansion — and that we all enjoyed a “free” lunch.
For a time we did. In the first half of the 20th century, particularly after World War II, economic growth fueled a growing middle class — a rising tide that lifted all boats. Between 1935 and 1980, people at all income levels were doing better and better.
The bottom 90 percent of incomes were earning 70 percent of all income growth and the top 10 percent were earning 30 percent. I grew up in that era. It was a shared prosperity, but nevermore, because, after 1980 a series of tax and policy changes shifted all the economic growth and the benefits to the top 10 percent. Many baby boomers now in their 60s and 70s are actually poorer now than their parents’ generation at the same point in their lives.
The phrase, “think globally act locally” came into play in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and was associated with the first Earth Day and President Nixon’s signing of the Clean Air Act. Since then it has broadened to include a range of environmental and economic issues. It can be the watchword for Prior Lake policymakers as they move forward with revisions to the 2040 Comprehensive Plan.
Climate change and growth are national, even global issues, but, locally, growth impinges on important things like the need for more roads, improvements to sewer and water systems, schools, traffic, noise, parks, the water supply, and the condition of our lakes. It affects our local environment and quality of life and the taxes we pay for government services. That perspective needs to be written into the 2040 plan and used as a criterion for evaluating all future development proposals. Growth has consequences, and it doesn’t pay for itself.
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John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email firstname.lastname@example.org. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)