Friday, April 7, 2017

The Solution to Pollution is Economic Revolution

It may have escaped most people's notice that availability of the earth's resources has been swiftly declining for decades. This will soon be reflected in a declining rate of goods available to the average world citizen, including food. Widespread hunger will be a faithful witness that we lack the basic necessities to sustain a growing world population. Those of seared conscience will begin to take notice when they sense it in their gut, if not in the food line.

This predicament simplifies decision-making considerably. When decisions deal with feeding a starving population in the interest of the common good, choices that improve food production and distribution should receive highest consideration. Problems that weren't formerly seen in those terms are brought into stark relief when recast in the context of famine.

Many issues could be boiled down to how well the possible solutions improve food availability, but one salient example in my neck of the woods is the health of the Chesapeake Bay. There are many eco-services that a vibrant Chesapeake Bay watershed offers to the economy (most currently valued more than food), but food production alone is more than enough to justify government expenditures toward restoring the watershed.

A 2014 peer-reviewed study for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation determined that the natural capital of the watershed offers a high economic return on our restoration dollars spent. Of the billions of dollars of benefits we reap from this unique ecosystem, only about 10% comes in the form of food production, e.g. seafood and agriculture. Nevertheless, a 10% increase in baseline food production, which could be expected from cleaning up the bay, is of sufficient economic value alone to pay for administering those cleanup efforts. On the other hand, if President Blowhard's proposed elimination of the program is approved and we go back to the old way where states were not accountable for making progress, there would be an estimated 11% loss of food production. That is an annual loss of $1.3 billion in food production as opposed to last year's cost of $73 million for the EPA to run the cleanup program.

Even if we discount the value of improved aesthetics, climate, recreation, waste treatment, and air and water quality (should those criteria become less important in the coming decades than putting food on the table) we would be money ahead by continuing the federally administered program to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.  However, while we are in transition to a sustenance economy, these other affected sectors will initially reap 90% of the multifarious economic benefits. Among the beneficiaries would be real estate, tourism and hospitality, outdoor recreation, and public health; and with the increase in our food supply, there are starving nations today who could use our surplus.

There is a cost to all of this ecological restoration beyond the amounts in EPA and state budgets. It is embedded in industry compliance with stormwater and sewer regulations, mainly in connection with property development and agriculture (mostly carried by Department of Agriculture subsidies). There are also municipal wastewater treatment costs. All these costs may offset the various GDP increases from the restoration and that will continue to be the case until we learn that failing to account for externalities in choosing how we coexist with nature will always come back to bite us. The way to avoid this unhappy result in the future is to adopt a different economic motive that prioritizes permaculture principles. As Richard Heinberg explains,
'Village 1860' by Stuart Williams
"growth is ending anyway: we need to restructure the economy so it can provide what we really need (food, basic services) without the expectation of continual expansion."

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