Monday, January 26, 2009

Economics: Resources, not Commodities

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I was reading a story in the newspaper recently about how one of President Bush's acts as a lame duck president was to preserve a significant portion of the Pacific Ocean as the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument. In the article, it noted that any activities in new National Monument would need to be evaluated to ensure that they were of a sustainable nature.

That stopped me dead in my tracks. In other words, it is necessary to declare a place a National Monument or grant it some other protected status in order to have potential uses checked to ensure that they are sustainable? Normal places can just be exploited for non-sustainable uses? What are we doing in all these environment impact assessments if we aren't evaluating whether the use in question is sustainable, and rejecting it if it is not?

This is a basic lesson taught to us by nature. One doesn't have to be Chief Sealth (or Governor Ingalls Stevens, or whoever actually wrote the famous environmental speech) to understand that everything needs to be sustainable in order for life to continue. Predators that hunt too much of their prey go extinct themselves as they have nothing left to eat. Cut down all the trees and there won't be enough wood left to built anything the next year (never mind the local climate change or loss of species that might also result). Even viruses that are too deadly burn themselves out because they eventually have nothing left to kill; the successful ones are the non-lethal ones. It's a basic concept of balance.

Somewhere along the way the human race seems to have lost sight of the basic concept of balance and decided that it can do whatever it wants with what it finds in the world. Over time, people have come to believe that technology will advance in such a way that it will always account for the exploitation of resources that the species has engaged in. Technology certainly helps the process of sustainability, but it doesn't directly address the fundamental problem--that people aren't leaving an equivalent world for successive generations.

It's not like this concept is incompatible with capitalism. Most remaining forestry companies practice the concept of sustainability, cutting down approximately the same amount of trees each year to maintain forests for wildlife and, probably more important to them, so that they will be able to continue to cut down a similar amount of trees for the foreseeable future. This hasn't stopped them from making money--and indeed they use technology to make it cheaper to remove the trees they do remove and to more efficiently grow new trees, improving their profits.

The key seems to be thinking of things--everything from the oceans to an iPhone--as resources instead of commodities. That is, things that can be cultivated for the sustainable uses that we can get from them in their present form, and then returned to the environment for transformation into other things if they can no longer provide their original function--in such a way that they can be replaced with an equivalent item. An ocean clearly cannot be replaced, so we can't cause it to be modified significantly from its present form. An electronic device can be replaced, so we need to think of it in a holistic resource cycle that includes the materials from which it is made, and to which it should be separated when it no longer functions. This concept is not beyond the grasp of the average person, but it requires them to think not as a consumer, but as a guardian of the world around them. That's a major change in mind-set, but it has to occur if the human race is to sustain the planet.

In the meantime, it is things like the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument declaration that remind me that we need the Green Party and environmental pressure groups to keep things from disappearing before we all learn this basic lesson.

No comments: