Hidden costs

Today, as I watched a screening of Josh Fox’s documentary GasLand, about natural gas extraction by means of a hydraulic drilling process called “fracking,” it struck me just how often we allow short-term greed to stand in the way of what is best for everyone over the long term.

Natural gas has been billed as a “clean” and inexpensive form of energy. But, when it is extracted from the ground through fracking, it can contaminate nearby water supplies, pollute the air and cause serious negative health impacts for both the humans and animals who live nearby.

So many say they want clean energy–but what people really mean is they want clean energy as long as it doesn’t cost too much. Unfortunately, everything has a cost. The question is when you pay. Coal may initially see less expensive than say wind energy. But is it still cheaper once the human health toll from mining, the destruction of nearby watersheds and the release of mercury into the air are included?

The same can be said for ensuring everyone has a job that pays a livable wage. Business owners may argue that they cannot afford to pay employees higher wages. But can we afford to subsidize the housing, food and health care of those who are not paid a livable wage?

When we buy a $19 pair of jeans or a $10 pair of shoes we neglect the cost on the developing nations. Third World workers bear the real costs in lower wages as do struggling domestic businesses who lose out to cheap imports. Further, a recent study by the scientists at the Carnegie Institution for Science found that more than a third of carbon dioxide emissions associated with the consumption of goods and services in many developed nations are emitted outside their borders.

Roughly 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide per person are consumed in the U.S. but produced somewhere else. In Europe the figure can exceed four tons per person. Suddenly the $10 pair of shoes is not so cheap.

When measuring cost, we must include these external hidden fees. To neglect to do so paints an inaccurate picture of the true expense of polluting our environment, ill-paying workers and damaging human health.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper