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  • Dr. Timothy X. Merritt

When the Global Economy Fails, So Does the Planet: The Environmental Costs of a Greater Depression

Abstract: The environmental consequences of a Greater Depression can range from air pollution, to water scarcity, to the loss of biodiversity, and more. Dr. Ranell knows that struggling economies can lead to decreased funding for conservation and environmental protection, a decline in the development of renewable energy sources, an increase in the use of fossil fuels, and a decrease in waste management and recycling efforts. Additionally, they can lead to a disruption of food production systems and a reduction in funding for scientific research and exploration of natural resources. Ranell’s problem is that he has six hybrid airships and a mountain of debt. He wants to determine if a deteriorating environment present any opportunities best served by the unique capabilities of his airship fleet.

Background (STEEPLE Analysis) for Directed Fiction


  1. Socio-Cultural

  2. Technological

  3. Economic

  4. Environmental

  5. Political

  6. Legal

  7. Ethical



This article is the fourth of a seven-part STEEPLE Analysis designed to examine the future impacts of a fictional Greater Depression. The specific Framing question for this exercise is:


How might Global Multimodal Logistics (GML’s) decision to purchase six hybrid airships be affected by a global-scale Greater Depression occurring in the decade of the 2020s?


From this perspective, it becomes possible to examine trends from the seven categories defined by the STEEPLE analysis. The fourth category is Environmental. This article seeks to offer a plausible answer to the following question:


Would the environmental impacts from a Greater Depression present opportunities for GML’s operations?


A Greater Depression is a severe economic downturn that could have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. It can lead to high unemployment, reduced economic activity, and a decrease in the standard of living. However, the impacts of a Greater Depression are not limited to the economy alone. The environment also bears the brunt of a severe economic downturn. The environmental consequences of a Greater Depression can range from air pollution, to water scarcity, to the loss of biodiversity, and more.


In addition to severe economic consequences, there will likely also be significant environmental impacts that threaten the planet and its inhabitants (Gray, 2018). The economic downturn can lead to decreased funding for conservation and environmental protection. It can also result in a decline in the development of renewable energy sources, an increase in the use of fossil fuels, and a decrease in waste management and recycling efforts. Additionally, it can lead to a disruption of food production systems and a reduction in funding for scientific research and exploration of natural resources. These environmental impacts will likely drive up costs for critical goods, making some cargo profitable as airship freight.


Air Pollution and Air Quality

Air pollution and air quality are two environmental issues that are closely tied to industrial activity and transportation. In 2020, the lockdowns from the COVID pandemic caused a record drop in carbon emissions (Stanford, 2020). During a Greater Depression, industrial activity and transportation are likely to decrease, leading to a decrease of pollutants released into the air. However, this decrease in pollution is only temporary as air pollution can rapidly increase once the economy recovers. Dr. Ranell assumes that during a Greater Depression, many industries will reduce their costs by cutting back on their pollution control measures, which will have a negative impact on the air quality once the economy recovers.


The low carbon footprint of hybrid airships in one of their main selling points. For years Ranell has explained that the consequences of increased air pollution on public health and the environment are well-documented (World Health Organization, 2019). Air pollution can lead to a variety of health problems, such as respiratory issues, heart disease, and cancer. It can also harm sensitive ecosystems, such as wetlands and forests. The effects of air pollution are not limited to just the present time, they can also have long-term consequences. For example, the impacts of air pollution on human health can last for many years and even decades after exposure.


The potential for air quality to decline if economic recovery is slow is a serious concern. If the economy does not recover quickly, industries may continue to neglect their pollution control measures, leading to long-term negative impacts on air quality. For hybrid airships to be preferred over other forms of cargo shipping, governments must be willing to take proactive steps to address air pollution, even during an economic downturn.


Ranell feels that trying to convince cash-strapped governments to invest in clean technologies, implement strict regulations, and promote sustainable transportation options may no longer be winning arguments. The Greater Depression may have removed one of his main competitive advantages.


Decline in Renewable Energy Development

One of the most significant environmental impacts of a Greater Depression is the decline in renewable energy development. During a severe economic downturn, funding for renewable energy projects is likely to decrease, as governments and private investors redirect their resources towards more pressing economic concerns (Standaert, 2019). This lack of funding can slow or even halt the development of renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric power.


When hybrid airships were first introduced, Dr. Ranell assumed that he could jump on the Climate Change gravy train and take advantage of generous government subsidies. However, the global decrease in funding for renewable energy projects have led to an increase in the reliance on fossil fuels (Hollingsworth, 2022). Arguments that this increase in the use of fossil fuels contributes to climate change and can have severe environmental consequences are beginning to fall on deaf ears. No one seems to care that the burning of fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. To make matters worse, years of catastrophic predictions of more frequent and severe extreme weather events, sea level rise, and other climate-related issues have failed to materialize in the forecasted timeframes.


There is no better vehicle than an airship to transport cargo that is both bulky and lightweight, such as massive wind turbine blades, to remote an inaccessible locations. Ranell knows that there are some politicians who still fervently view the potential for long-term negative effects on air quality and climate change is a serious concern, even if it only for the political expediency of shifting public perception away from other aspects of economic collapse. How can he persuade them that it is important for governments to continue investing in renewable energy even during difficult economic times, to ensure a sustainable future for the planet and its inhabitants. It is a dangerous gamble because if renewable energy development is not resumed after a Greater Depression, the reliance on fossil fuels could become entrenched and difficult to reverse.


Increase in Plastic Pollution

If Ranell cannot find a way to make his airships profitable, the entire GML corporation will likely become just another one of the thousands of businesses going bankrupt during the Greater Depression. He directs his team to explore the most unlikely possibilities in a desperate attempt to find a relevant application of his resources. He says he will entertain any idea, no matter how crazy it might sound.


Turn the problem upside down. What if GML hauled garbage instead of freight? One of the environmental consequences of a Greater Depression is an increase in plastic pollution. During a severe economic downturn, waste management and recycling efforts are likely to decrease as governments and private organizations redirect their resources towards more pressing economic concerns (King, 2018). This decrease in waste management and recycling can lead to an increase in the amount of plastic pollution. Plastic pollution can have a significant impact on marine life and ecosystems, as plastic debris can harm and even kill marine animals and can also disrupt food chains.


The consequences of increased plastic pollution on marine life and ecosystems are severe. Plastic debris can entangle and suffocate marine animals, such as sea turtles, whales and seabirds. Plastic pollution can also be ingested by marine animals, which can lead to injury or death. Plastic pollution can also disrupt food chains and harm other marine organisms, such as coral reefs, by smothering and killing them.


The potential for plastic pollution to become a long-term problem if not addressed is a serious concern. Crowdfunding, philanthropy, and international governmental policy are all potential avenues to gain income streams from concerned stakeholders (King, 2018). Ranell’s first instinct is to dismiss this idea, but in the event of hyperinflation, recycling plastic or even generating oil from pyrolysis (King, 2018) may become lucrative if economies of scale were obtained.


Disruption of Food Production Systems

The Greater Depression has significantly impacted the four pillars of food security – availability, access, utilization, and stability (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2020). The disruption of these systems has led to food shortages and even famine, particularly in developing countries that rely heavily on agriculture. The decrease in economic activity has also led to a decline in the demand for agricultural products, which caused a decrease in prices, making it difficult for farmers to earn a living. This led to a decrease in food production, which further exacerbate food shortages.


Famine and food shortages during a Greater Depression have resulted in severe health problems, such as malnutrition and even death. Ranell does not think it would be cost efficient to transport food products. He knows that even delivering food to starving people would not pay enough to cover his operating costs.


His sense is that the public outcry for governments to do something to address famine is growing to a crescendo that will soon be impossible to ignore. Is there any other aspect of the agricultural supply chain that GML could serve? Perhaps GML should radically alter its trajectory away from a standard freight hauling business model. Might it be possible to re-imagine his whole operation and reorganize the airship fleet as a non-profit corporation dedicated to serving impoverished areas anywhere in the world? That might enable Ranell to write off the entire purchase price of the airship fleet as a tax loss and thus save GML from bankruptcy.

There is a moral argument to be made here as well. People are starving to death while surplus food rots in the field because it is no longer profitable to harvest it. Ranell has the technological and operational means to save peoples lives. He might not be able to deliver food as a business, but maybe there is a way to do it as a charity.


Reduced Funding for Scientific Research

During a Greater Depression, funding for scientific research has decreased as governments and private investors redirect their resources towards more pressing economic concerns (Jahnke, 2015). This lack of funding has slowed and even halted important research on the environment and natural resources. Without proper research and monitoring, it becomes difficult to identify and address environmental issues, such as climate change, deforestation, and pollution. This lack of knowledge can also make it difficult to develop effective solutions and policies to protect the environment.


Ranell cannot count on government largesse to support his airship operations if environmental research is not resumed due to the economic anchor of the Greater Depression on the global economy. GML is teetering on the edge of insolvency, and he doesn’t have time to convince government bureaucrats that it is important for to continue funding scientific research even during difficult economic times.


The Greater Depression has led to decreased funding for conservation and environmental protection, a decline in the development of renewable energy sources, an increase in the use of fossil fuels, and a decrease in waste management and recycling efforts. Critically, it has already led to a disruption of food production systems that is threatening to destabilize the world. Ranell knows his airships could have some important role to play in addressing this damage, but unless governments and private organizations to take proactive steps to address these environmental consequences, he will have no choice but to apply his resources elsewhere.


References

Hollingsworth, J. (2022) A fool’s game on climate. American Thinker. Retrieved from https://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2022/12/a_fools_game_on_climate.html


International Food Policy Research Institute (2020). Economic and food supply chain disruptions endanger global food security. Phys Org. Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2020-07-economic-food-chain-disruptions-endanger.html


Jahnke, A. (2015). Who picks up the tab for science? The Brink. Retrieved from https://www.bu.edu/articles/2015/funding-for-scientific-research/


King, P. (2018) Ocean cleanup won’t turn a profit, but we should still do it. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/ocean-cleanup-wont-turn-a-profit-but-we-should-still-do-it-104097


PESTLE Analysis. (2015). Difference between STEEP and STEEPLE Analysis. Retrieved from https://pestleanalysis.com/steep-and-steeple-analysis/


Standaert, M. (2019) Why China’s renewable energy transition is losing momentum. YaleEnvironment 360. Retried from https://e360.yale.edu/features/why-chinas-renewable-energy-transition-is-losing-momentum


Stanford Earth Matters (2020) COVID lockdown causes record drop in carbon emissions for 2020. Stanford University. Retrieved from https://earth.stanford.edu/news/covid-lockdown-causes-record-drop-carbon-emissions-2020


World Health Organization (2019). Health consequences of air pollution on populations. WHO Department News. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news/item/15-11-2019-what-are-health-consequences-of-air-pollution-on-populations


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