by Richard Heinberg

This article originally appeared in the Ecologist November 2008

During the past weeks the world media have been transfixed by the convulsions of the US and global financial system. At stake are billions in bailouts and trillions in derivatives. The viability of banks and currencies is threatened, and ultimately the savings and investments of hundreds of millions of ordinary people.

Meanwhile, the news from the environmental front is just as terrifying: this past summer saw the second-highest Arctic icecap melt rate (after last year’s record), and Russian scientists observed the large-scale release of methane (a super-potent greenhouse gas) from thawing Siberian permafrost.

How is the average person to judge the relative importance of the financial and environmental news?

Of course financial turmoil has real-world consequences for people. Families that were formerly middle-class may now be forced to learn what poverty feels like. But, however uncomfortable, this kind of economic dislocation is inevitable, given the nature of our economic system. During the 19th century, the world’s industrial nations endured a depression, currency collapse, or financial panic at least once every decade or two. The most recent general depression, during the 1930s, was followed by war and a period of relative stability (and furiously paced fossil-fueled growth). Sweden, Argentina, and other countries have seen more recent banking failures, but otherwise we’ve all gotten used to an unusual calm.

Welcome back to the historic norm of economic uncertainty!

Ecosystems are also unstable. Natural disasters, freak weather events, and plague species can send finely-tuned mutual relations between plants, animals, and microbes into dramatic flux. These perturbations tend to balance themselves out over a time period commensurate with their scale and severity.

But now we are seeing converging environmental crises on a scale and level of severity that is comparable only with mass extinction events of the geologic past. The climate is destabilized, the oceans are dying, and both renewable and non-renewable resources are being depleted at such a rate that one has to wonder whether future human generations can maintain any economy at all.

These ecological disasters are unfolding at a slower pace than the financial crisis, and therefore seem not to warrant as much public attention. Yet civilizations have collapsed because of far smaller environmental problems than any one of a dozen now converging upon us.

Moreover, news about the environment must compete not only with numbers from Wall Street, but with stories about our favorite celebrities and sports teams as well. In effect, we are entertaining ourselves to death while we obsess over the fortunes of gamblers and thieves.

Which is all the more reason to turn off the television, look out the window, and pay attention to the real world of non-human nature. Doing so is the only way to maintain a sense of proportion about what we hear and read, about where we’re headed and what we should do about it.

Financial collapse? It will be nasty, but we’ll survive it. Ecological collapse? I wish I could be so sure.