We all love a funny meme, but by their nature they oversimplify complex issues. Therefore, memes (and political cartoons) can be useful in making a general point, but they should not be considered a serious argument and we certainly should not rely on memes to make a serious argument. Such is the case with one meme I have seen a few times on Facebook:
If you think the economy is more important than the environment, try holding your breath while counting your money.
This is straight out of a Captain Planet cartoon. What our mullet-wearing “superhero” does not get is that there are legitimate times to consider trade-offs between the environment and the economy. It also does not account for the fact that the modern economy has been a benefit to human health, and that we would all be far worse off if we subsisted as part of “nature” like the animals.
For one thing, a wealthier economy allows access to basic infrastructure that benefits human health. One of the most important is modern sewage treatment. One need only look at the horrific cholera outbreaks in Haiti to see why investment in health infrastructure – infringing on the “environment” for human health – can save countless lives. People in modern economies have significant health benefits over people who live in poor countries without that infrastructure.
Furthermore, having more money allows people to not only have more food to grow stronger, but to eat a healthier diet so we can get both the calories and the nutrients our bodies need. There is a reason that the people of North Korea are shorter in stature than the people of South Korea, for example. As an economy modernizes and becomes more wealthy, human health improves. Let’s not forget that wealthier nations have access to more and higher-quality health care than poor nations.
Yes, obviously we should not wreck the environment. Even most libertarians recognize the need for some environmental regulations, if only to protect people’s property from being damaged by the recklessness of others. But saying that the economy must never take precedence over the environment is simple-minded, callous and cruel. It is a typically Western attitude, where we are not grateful for what we have and we lecture those with less about being environmentally conscious. We should not be surprised when they tell us to buzz off.