Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

Compleat Wetlander: Help the Environment Help Us by Spending Less and Developing Perpetual Resources

As the federal fiscal year draws to a close, the federal government has a $1.65 trillion deficit and $14.6 trillion in debt.  Lawmakers are looking for ways to cut expenditures.  Frequently when funding is cut, environmental programs are identified as an area that provides opportunities to significantly reduce spending.   Some lawmakers also believe less monitoring, less regulating and less enforcement will reduce government spending and accelerate economic growth.

One problem with using these ideas as important platforms for jump-starting the economy is that they seem unlikely to have much of an impact on getting the economy going again.  First, there is not that much environmental funding to cut relative to other programs.  Natural Resources—including  pollution control, and water and land management make up 1.12% of the President’s 2012 proposed budget.  This is very small compared to Social Security (20.04%) health care (22.62%), income security (14.48%)  and national defense (19.27%)

Also, “where can we cut federal spending to cut the deficit?” is important, but it’s not the right question to start with.  The budget deficit is a symptom of a much larger economic problem that has been decades in the making.  Economists divide the U.S. economy into four sectors: U.S. government, U.S. households, U.S. business, and the rest of the world.  Exports to the rest of the world ceased to drive growth more than 30 years ago. Business investment ceased to drive growth 10 years ago. Household spending ceased to drive growth three years ago. Since then the U.S. government has taken up the slack leading to record deficits. It’s not sustainable.

Natural resources are like the economy, the different sectors, land, air, water, and wildlife/plants have to be in balance with each other.  They must be managed to be sustainable.  Otherwise there are consequences such as loss of arable land, too little or too much water, or the introduction of harmful invasive species.   Managing natural resources sustainably safeguards food production, ensures jobs, protects human health and safety, and creates export opportunities.  Poor management and unsustainable natural resource management practices can lead to problems that get worse over time such as the frequency of dead zones worldwide: or increasing costs from natural disasters

Poor natural resource management threatens economic growth.  For example it’s estimated that 25% of the wealth in third world countries is derived from natural capital.

The U.S. also needs to protect its natural resource assets.  The Nation’s wealth and opportunities for future growth are dependent on healthy farmland, forests, minerals, fisheries, wildlife.  These in turn are dependent on a healthy environment.

The recently released Green Scissors report identifies $380 million in spending cuts that would also benefit the environment.  It identifies spending cuts in four major areas:  energy, agriculture, transportation and land and water.  Many of the proposed cuts would eliminate incentives for practices that harm the environment.  They are supported by some very diverse organizations.

Cutting spending is not enough.  The deficit is the symptom. Jobs and economic growth are the cure.  The field of Natural Resource Economics examines the interdependence between natural resources and economics and it includes some interesting concepts such as perpetual, exhaustible, and paleoresources.

Exhaustible resources are those with a finite supply, and these often come from limited areas worldwide.   When these run out so do the jobs associated with them.  However new technology makes it possible to find alternative materials that do the same job.  A perpetual resource is one that is inexhaustible on a human time scale (i.e., solar energy, tidal power, or synthetic diamonds.)  A paleoresource, on the other hand, is one that humans no longer need such as tin cans or slate blackboards.  As technology evolves worldwide it seems likely that exhaustible resources may become paleoresources as perpetual resources  develop the competitive advantage.

The old ways of doing business aren’t working.  They haven’t been for a long time.  Protecting and sustaining natural resources while pursuing the development of perpetual resources should be reflected in the decisions made by the Administration and Congress.  They are both needed to create a sustainable economy.

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