Two headlines in my local paper today made me re-think the phrase, "silver lining." Because according to The Oregonian today, the bad economy has a green lining. Specifically, our landfills and our health can thank the falling GDP for better results. The health statistics, especially, surprised economics professor Christopher Ruhm, who'd expected to see the opposite effect in his 1-year study of death rates and unemployment rates. To whit: the two were a mirror image. The higher the unemployment rate, the fewer deaths from car accidents, heart attacks, industrial accidents and SIDS, as well as other causes of infant death.

Landfills, too, have a reverse correlation with economic indicators. As consumption falls, so does refuse. In Oregon, landfills were stuffed with 16 percent less trash in the last quarter of 2008 as the last quarter of 2007. Could it be that buying stuff is bad for us; and the reverse is also true? (A quiet echo in this question: should we -- if we were to be truly responsible about it -- actually desire a serious reduction in GDP?)

While it may be unpopular in corporate circles (I'm looking at you, packaged goods companies, food manufacturers, credit card purveyors, and the enormous electronic goods industry), the evidence certainly points that way. The more we buy, after all, the more room we need to put stuff. And where to put it when we already have so much stuff? To the garbage bin it goes. A disposable economy? Means not only are we throwing stuff away, but that we're engineering things to fall apart quickly (and not in the good way, through composting), to call for replacement, more spending, cheaper prices, more credit, and more hours at the corporate grindstone to pay for it all. Leading to more stress, more health problems, and (of course) a drive to sell even more stuff with planned obsolescence at an even tighter timeframe. So you can afford more stuff, that is.

According to the Oregonian article, there's a downside to the reduction in landfill filling. "Cash-strapped factories delay the installation of new, environment-friendly equipment, instead holding onto relic smokestacks. And consumers who might have purchased a fuel-efficient vehicle are holding off, in some cases driving cars that pollute." The problem with this industrial-era problem: it doesn't translate into the pollution you'd think it would. The piece goes on to quote statistics that suggest our air quality is improving. (The data takes longer to collect and analyze, so it's not all "in" yet.)

It's air quality and a host of other things, according to researchers, that cause our health to improve in a recession. When pollution falls, so do infant deaths in the cities who've experienced a reduction in the smog produced by manufacturing facilities (scary, hmm, the toll that our economy takes on babies?). Recessions take a toll on our driving habits, reducing traffic accidents (that's an obvious one). We also stop smoking and drinking so much. Interestingly, it's not the casual smoker or social drinker who cuts out vices to save money, but the heavy users who reduce their intake. Since these populations are the most likely to expire from the ravages of their chosen drug, when they cut back, death rates fall. (In this statistic is a point for the "addiction is a choice" movement, which argues that alcoholics and smokers are not, after all, powerless in the face of their addiction, but that's another story.)

Other research supports Ruhm's findings on death rates and unemployment, in Cuba, Germany, Japan and Spain. The most startling example is Cuba, where drastic fuel shortages and food rationing also led to a shortage in obesity (rates fell from 14 percent to seven percent over five years), diabetes (a more than 50 percent reduction in deaths from diabetes) and strokes (deaths from stroke down 20 percent ).

After a close analysis of this data, when I hear our leaders encouraging us to spend to support the economy, I'm going to be here patching my bike innertube and my little boys' pants, growing my own vegetables, eating three meals a day at home, and quietly rooting for more frugality.

And I think I'll call the garbage company and tell them I only need my trash picked up once a month. Happy Earth Day.


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