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60-Second Earth

Is a Global Recession Good for the Environment?

Seems like when the economy's bad, the environment improves, but history shows otherwise

[Below is the original script. But a few changes may have been made during the recording of this audio podcast.]

Times are tough when a millionaire oil man can't get a wind farm built. T. Boone Pickens backed off of his much ballyhooed mega-wind project in Texas this week, citing the declining cost of natural gas. Fossil fuel burning power plants are still too good of a deal to bother investing $2 billion into wind turbines.

A bear market might seem like a boon for the environment: less overall economic activity, like manufacturing and driving, means less overall pollution. Right?

Actually, as the Pickens example proves, global economic downturns take a toll on the environment by restraining economic activity that could improve the situation. But that's not all. Over-farming and drought led to 400,000 square kilometers of prime top soil blowing away in the wind in the 1930s, exacerbating, and exacerbated by, the Great Depression. And the economic crises that crippled the economies of southeast Asia in the 1990s also set in motion a rapid uptick in environmentally damaging pursuits such as illegal logging and cyanide fishing, according to the World Bank.

Even as I speak, economic worries have prompted some European countries to begin backpedaling on their commitments to cut back on global warming pollution.

So an economic downturn is no friend of the environment. Brother, can you spare a turbine?

—David Biello

60-Second Earth is a weekly podcast from Scientific American. Subscribe to this Podcast: RSS | iTunes

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