Essay – Should environmental protection policies and regulations be relaxed during a recession?

Another of my school essays for your reading enjoyment. As always, I welcome comments and critique. 

Recession vs. the environment

The Question – Should environmental protection policies and regulations be relaxed during a recession?

This question is one of valuation—is one thing worth more to us than the other—and represents a classic environment versus economy question. My personal answer to this question is no, and here is my rational.

A recession is defined as “a period of decline in total output, income, and employment” (McConnell, Brue, & Barbiero, 2005, p. 131). The same text also states that “[t]he standard of living of the average person in a particular country is dependent on its production of goods and services. A rise in the standard of living requires a rise in the output of goods and services” (McConnell et al., 2005, p. 3). This is the basis of the economic argument that claims economic growth is always good and any deviation from a state of growth is problematic, i.e. during a recession we have a declining standard of living. This idea of continued economic growth is based in the Cornucopian/Promethean idea that there will always be an abundant supply of resources, natural systems will adapt to and absorb our wastes, and human ingenuity will always develop technologies that will solve our current problems (Dryzek, 2013). Economic theory cites market forces as an enabler of these developments (McConnell et al., 2005), and so if environmental regulation inhibits economic recovery it should therefore be relaxed during a recession. Moreover, a simple look around the world will confirm that those of us who live in a developed nation like Canada have longer life expectancies, lower child mortality rates and a much higher level of material well-being. From this perspective, the economy should clearly be the trump card.

Waterfall Hermit Medows

There are, however, a number of issues with this argument. First, let’s ask why environmental protection policies exist in the first place. It is generally accepted that these policies have developed over time because of our increased understanding of the natural world, and due to the changing attitudes of the general public. Policies and regulations are put in place by government institutions because at some stage it was agreed that this is what civil society wants. The history of environmentalism in North America illustrates how this change came about. The late 1800s and early 1900s saw a significant shift in attitudes in the United States towards environmental stewardship. These changes came about due to the actions and ideas of individuals like John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, and Gifford Pinchot, who became the first head of the newly-created US Forest Service under president Theodore Roosevelt (Hanna, 2010).  While Muir and Pinchot had differing views on how the environment should be managed (preservation versus conservation), their actions, and those of others, influenced public discourse which laid the foundation for modern environmental thought. The post-war era was a time of rapid industrialization, and by the 1960s there was a growing awareness of pollution issues caused by this growth (Paehlke, 2009). Fueled by environmental writing like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, there was an increasing demand on policy makers to protect the environment—for both aesthetic and health reasons—which led to the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act in the United States, and later influenced Canadian environmental policy (Paehlke, 2009). Our current environmental policies and regulations are the result of a long environmental discourse based on the values of civil society. To abandon them during an economic downturn suggests they are not important, or are possibly optional. If this is the case, why have them at all? Maybe during a time of need there are other laws we could discard like theft, extortion, or the destruction of property, if their abolition could be justified as a way to aid with economic recovery.

My second point is based on the flawed nature of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the sole indicator of human well-being. GDP is a constructed measure based on income only, and does not take into consideration any negative expenses or reduction in capital (McConnell et al., 2005). That is like saying my own personal well-being is based only on the income I earn and has nothing to do with the size of my expenses, debts, or draw-down of my assets. GDP does not take into account the impact of any social or environmental degradation in its calculations. More comprehensive measures of our overall well-being, like the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), are under development and include environmental and social conditions as part of their metric (McGuire, Posner, & Haake, 2012). These indicators illustrate that there is more to human well-being than economic factors, and that some social and environmental measures are either flat or declining as economic indicators increase.

My third point references the idea of natural capital and planetary boundaries, and also addresses the apparent paradox of environmental degradation and the improvement of human well-being in the industrial age. In 2005 the United Nations sponsored Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that we have greatly depleted the Earth’s natural capital and continue to do so in an unsustainable fashion (Dryzek, 2013). Since then, the idea of planetary boundaries have been proposed that identifies nine biogeochemical and biophysical characteristics that have associated tipping points (Rockström, et al., 2009). Passing these tipping points would trigger a change of state that would have large implications for humans and the environment. Tying these two concepts together, we can consider the example of a family who has been left a large financial inheritance. While they live very well in a large house with all of the comforts they desire, they are not very good stewards of their money and their capital is steadily being depleted. As its value decreases, so does its ability to generate income from interest until a point is crossed where the family is directly drawing down their capital assets and can no longer afford the life they have become accustom to. So it is with our environmental assets, where we—the developed nations—will continue to prosper on the natural capital of the Earth, until a point is passed that triggers a collapse of the very systems that support us.

From these examples it should be clear that environmental protection should take precedence, even in a time of economic recession. As a civil society, this is the level of protection we have so far agreed to; from an economic perspective, GDP is a very poor indicator of human well-being; and from an environmental perspective, we must become better stewards of the natural capital we have inherited.



  • Dryzek, J. S. (2013). The politics of the Earth: environmental discourses (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hanna, K. (2010). Transition and the Need for Innovation in Canada’s Forest Sector. In B. Mitchell (Ed.), Resource and environmental management in Canada: addressing conflict and uncertainty (4th ed.). Don Mills, Ont. ; New York: Oxford University Press.
  • McConnell, C., Brue, S., & Barbiero, T. (2005). Macro Economics (10th Canadian.). Toronto, ON: McGraw-Hill.
  • McGuire, S., Posner, S., & Haake, H. (2012). Measuring Prosperity: Maryland’s Genuine Progress Indicator | Solutions. The Solutions Journal, 3(2), 50–58.
  • Paehlke, R. (2009). The Environmental Movement in Canada. In D. L. VanNijnatten & R. Boardman (Eds.), Canadian environmental policy and politics (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press.
  • Rockström, J., et al. (2009). Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Ecology and Society, 14(2). Retrieved from