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After Years of Abuse, the Earth Has Sent Its Bill Collectors

We have to stop relying on our “Capitalism One” card to defer the true cost of what we exploit and consume.

Chuck Lubelczyk, a vector ecologist for Maine Medical Center Research Institute, displays a vial of live lone star ticks. As climate change intensifies, tick populations are increasing -- and spreading meat allergies.

Does Mother Nature have a sense of irony?

To answer that question, look no further than the lone star tick. Although the tick’s traditional range in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic includes the eastern half of the Lone Star State of Texas, it gets its name from a white, star-like “splotch” on its back. But thanks to climate change, this nettlesome little critter is on the move. It’s moving into the Northeast as far as Maine. And it’s gone well past its usual bailiwick in the Ohio Valley to make its way into the upper Midwest and into Wisconsin.

It’s not surprising that ticks, like half of all species, are moving with the changing climate. What is surprising is what the lone star tick brings with it. No, it’s not Lyme disease, although warming-catalyzed deer ticks are spreading that debilitating malady into new areas. Instead, the lone star tick carries another little-known disease—alpha-gal syndrome.

The term “alpha-gal” comes from name of the sugar molecule that, according to the Mayo Clinic, can lead to hives, eczema, swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat, as well as wheezing, abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting, headaches and even the potentially deadly interruption of normal breathing by anaphylaxis. However, these symptoms may not follow after a bite. In fact, it might take a while for an infected person to feel the full impact of a newly acquired syndrome.

That’s because alpha-gal syndrome often expresses itself hours after the infected person eats a big, juicy steak. Or pork chops. Or a cheeseburger. Yup, the lone star tick is spreading a meat allergy. It’s severe, too. One unfortunate victim profiled in Mosaic cannot risk eating the “meat of mammals and everything else that comes from them: dairy products, wool and fibre, gelatine from their hooves, char from their bones.” Alpha-gal’s delayed trigger also makes it hard to diagnose. People often don’t connect their symptoms with eating a meal they’ve eaten without consequence throughout their whole lives.

That’s a big deal in the U.S., where meat is king and it’s cheap and plentiful, thanks in no small part to industrial-grade agriculture. In 2018, Americans broke their previous record for meat consumption, gobbling down 222.2 pounds of meat and poultry per person, according a United States Department of Agriculture estimate. Americans’ beef consumption is four times higher than the world average, according to the World Resources Institute. The consumption of dairy was also on track to hit an all-time high in 2018.

To meet this insatiable demand for meat, Big Ag deploys heavily subsidized, industrial-grade agriculture with massive feedlots that gobble up megatons of grains. These factory farms also suck up huge amounts of water. They generate epic amounts of ecosystem-denuding, water-contaminating runoff. And they produce billowing gigatons of greenhouse gases — both carbon dioxide (CO2) from the industrial complexities it takes to fuel these factory farms and methane from the noxious flatulence produced by many millions of animals. Then those animals are transported to die on increasingly mechanized slaughter-lines that whirl along at faster and faster speeds. Their carcasses get chilled or frozen and then shipped out by fleets of fossil-fueled trucks on their way to energy-sucking processing factories, to suburban supermarkets and to fast-food chains, where people often sit in running cars awaiting their share of the U.S.’s seemingly endless bovine bounty.

So, here’s where Mother Nature steps in.

Industrial agriculture — and meat production in particular — is a significant source of greenhouse gases. Americans trail only Uruguay and Argentina in per capita beef consumption, and the U.S. is by far the leader in climate-disrupting factory farming practices that, in turn, stoke anthropogenic climate change. But the changing climate across North America is catalyzing the expansion of tick populations. And now tick populations are spreading diseases like the alpha-gal red meat allergy to meat-gorging Americans.

How’s that for putting some irony in our diets?

The “Capitalism One” Credit Card

For most scientists, that’s a bridge too far. They’d understandably reject assigning “Mother Nature” with an anthropomorphic trait like a sense of irony. But this planet’s macro-ecological system does have an undeniable sense of accounting … and it keeps a running tally. From alpha-gal syndrome to herbicide resistance, from rising seas to superstorms, we’re watching Mother Nature’s accounting system repeatedly expose the fatal flaw driving economic growth during the Anthropocene era. That flaw is the fallacy of externalities.

The simple Wikipedia definition of an “externality” is a “cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.” Up to now, we’ve thought we were only imposing it — externalization, that is — to other human beings. Usually, externalities impact those who are too politically or economically powerless to fight back. That’s why they’re targeted. Whether through offshoring polluting factories; or dumping toxic waste into the commons like the rivers, lakes, the seas or the air; or locating poisonous industries in political and financially disempowered neighborhoods and towns, externalization is a quick, easy and profitable way to take the true cost of doing a business and make someone else pay for it.

Aren’t humans grand?

The idea of “externalities” doesn’t just reflect our willingness to abuse others for profit. It also reflects a collective delusion held by those with power — the belief that they can exempt themselves from the closed loop that is Earth’s accounting system.

In the case of climate change, think of it like a CO2 credit card. Let’s call it the “Capitalism One” card. We’ve been charging our skyrocketing carbon emissions to that card for many decades. Every car purchased, every plane ride taken, every Amazon Prime Delivery selected and every Big Mac picked up at the drive-through has externalized the true cost of that purchase. Missing are the greenhouse gases that never get calculated into the purchase price of anything. Instead, we charge that cost onto our collective Capitalism One card.

Just consider lone star ticks to be one of nature’s little bill collectors. Alpha-gal is the cost, with interest. The same goes for the earthquakes and contaminated water that come from fracking reinjection wells. We use hydraulic fracturing to forcefully break open natural subterranean formations, to release oil and gas that we blithely burn into climate-altering CO2 while also leaking climate-altering methane. Then, in an externality twofer, we take the wastewater from the process, which can become radioactive, and we “dispose” of it by re-injecting it into the ground through wells, which, in turn, Mother Nature “bills us” with contaminated water, earthquakes and health problems.

All the while our mantra remains “out of sight, out of mind and onto our Capitalism One card.”

Now think of the many trillions of dollars of wealth that has been charged on that card since the start of the Anthropocene era and, more directly, throughout the great acceleration of the industrial age. We’ve voraciously taken — and taken for granted — resources from the Earth and processed them to our own ends. Thanks to a toxic combination of convenient ignorance and willful, short-sighted indifference, we’ve simply loaded the true costs of those processes right back onto our de facto credit card, a.k.a. into the land, the air and the water.

Welcome to the Due Date

Have you heard of balloon payments? That’s kind of what bomb cyclones are — big, one-time payments on a long-deferred account. These extreme, climate-fueled events also exhibited a tragic symmetry with the alpha-gal allergy when this spring’s bomb-cyclone-stoked flooding inflicted up to $3 billion worth of damage on livestock and farmland in the Midwest. This year saw two bomb cyclones — previously thought to be extremely “rare” weather events — within a few weeks’ time. They affected 25 states around the Midwest, the Great Plains and the Mountain West.

An AccuWeather analysis estimates the total cost of all the flooding will rise to $12.5 billion. It also led to government resource-draining “state of emergency” declarations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska, with the last two being hit particularly hard. Beef Magazine called the bomb cyclone “devastating” because the “timing couldn’t be worse as many [farmers] are in the middle of calving season.” Some in Nebraska compared the devastation to the Dust Bowl, which, not coincidentally, happened to be a human-made disaster.

And that’s just the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg. The 2018 Pacific typhoon season hammered nations around Asia to the tune of $18.4 billion in damage. In 2018, natural disasters generated $80 billion in insured losses, which is “well above the inflation-adjusted average for the last 30 years of $41 billion,” according to the Munich Reinsurance Co. In 2017, the Munich Reinsurance Co. also found that insurance claims spiked to a record $135 billion due to the combination of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria with the wildfires in California, which also “created overall economic losses” of $330 billion. The U.S. Air Force is struggling with a $4 billion shortfall as it struggles to find the $5 billion it needs to remediate the massive damage done by 2018’s Hurricane Michael and this year’s bomb-cyclone-fueled flooding. New Orleans is now facing a $14 billion bill to counter the combo of rising sea levels and sinking levees that were rebuilt by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina wiped them out in 2005.

The Government Accountability Office estimated in 2017 that climate change had already cost U.S. taxpayers over $350 billion during the preceding decade.

Even more dauntingly, researchers at the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom estimated that the “climate-change-driven feedbacks in the Arctic” currently driving up the rate of warming could add “nearly $70 trillion to the overall costs of climate change — even if the world meets the Paris Agreement climate targets,” according to a report in National Geographic. To put that in perspective, global GDP in 2017 was $80 trillion.

Even the staid Bank of England recently warned of a “sudden and severe” loss of up to $20 trillion if and when “stranded assets” like “unburnable carbon” become worthless during the peak of the climate crisis. In other words, all the investments in hydrocarbons could be zeroed out by the maelstrom of climate change. The Bank of Canada recently echoed this warning and predicted both “fire sales” of these stranded assets and “transition risks” from climate-stoked decarbonization. The Bank of England also said climate change will trigger a “disorderly transition” to the new economic reality of a climate-altered world should the finance sector fail to “change investment and business practices to meet the needs of lower environmental impact,” according to a report in The Telegraph.

How’s that for a bill coming due?

Then in February of this year, analysts at Morgan Stanley said they expect climate change to “negatively affect dozens of industries like agriculture and oil-and-gas production in the short-term — and real estate, leisure and consumer retail in the long-term.” As Risk & Insurance reported, climate change is already “affecting food supply chains for products like chocolate, vanilla, avocados, coffee and wine, changing how fine art is protected, and transforming the energy industry.”

Consumers and markets are adjusting, too. Even as ticks spread the alpha-gal meat allergy, Burger King is responding to growing demand for the plant-based Impossible Burger. It’s being “spread” nationwide, not by ticks but by franchisees, after a smashing test run in St. Louis. At the same time, Carl’s Jr. is featuring Beyond Meat’s plant-based meat-alternative. That success fueled its new initial public offering (IPO) to the tune of a $3 billion valuation. Essentially, IPOs are Wall Street’s first chance to render judgment on the viability of newly public business. In the case of Beyond Meat, it’s been dubbed the most successful IPO of 2019 thus far. It even surpassed the much-anticipated IPOs of CO2-generating rideshare companies Uber and Lyft. In fact, meat alternatives are becoming so popular that the meat industry is working at the state level to outlaw the use of the word “meat” on meat-alternative packaging.

That’s a sure sign tastes are changing.

Still, these are not the kind of shock-to-the-system changes some see as the only hope for averting the catastrophe predicted by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change if humanity does not meet the Paris Accord target of limiting global temperature increase to between 1.5 and 2°C. That, according to a report in Nature, would mean reducing our collective carbon emissions by almost half by 2030 and then achieving “carbon neutrality by 2050 to meet this target.”

But it is also not insignificant that elemental behaviors like eating are beginning to change, particularly as the people in the U.S. have finally crossed the tipping point from climate skepticism to climate dread. Like all human beings, Americans are starting to see, feel and pay for the impacts of our prolonged, supposedly externalized overuse of hydrocarbons.

Sadly, the distribution of the cost of human activity doesn’t always bend toward symmetry … or justice. This year, Mozambique suffered through two deadly cyclones — Idai and Kenneth — that left entire cities underwater, left many thousands stranded and racked-up billions in damage. In Mozambique and the Philippines and in climate-exposed places like Bangladesh, people who have contributed the least to the climate credit card often bear the brunt of our Capitalism One card’s unsettled account. They literally cannot afford it, either. It’s yet another example of the all-too-human cost of externalization.

The upshot, though, is that nature doesn’t just punish bad behavior with a huge bill. It pays dividends if and when we’re willing to settle our accounts. Mother Nature tends toward an ecologically balanced budget. The problem is that we are not just deeply in arrears, but, as Earth Overshoot Day shows us each year, we are wantonly piling on even more debt. That’s the day when humanity “overshoots” what the planet can provide to us in one calendar year. Everything consumed after that threshold is crossed cannot be replenished and we are officially “in the red.” Last year, that day was August 1, the earliest ever. Those are debts we may never be able to repay. But that also means it is imperative that we begin paying as we go. We have to stop relying on our Capitalism One card to defer the true cost of what we exploit and consume.

And if not? Mother Nature will keep on tabulating the cost of our appetites and evolving new ways to collect on our debts. One way or another, our collective account will be settled because there are no externalities in nature.

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