Economic Prosperity vs. Environment?

The question of whether to allow the City of Santa Cruz to grant water service to an expanded UCSC campus has consequences for endangered salmon as well as for our local economy.  A question with such consequences is not unique in our history.  Our society is often confronted with what looks like a choice between care for the environment and care for our economic well-being. We need to get clearer on an approach to economic well-being that makes such terrible choices unnecessary. A historical perspective may help.

I recommend going to your locally-owned bookstore and getting a copy of The Death and Life of Monterey Bay. The book traces the history of wildlife exploitation in the Bay, starting with the hunting of sea otters for their fur pelts. Otter fur coats were a fashion statement among the elite in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century China. As a result of the hunt by English, Spanish, and Russian traders, otters south of Alaska were thought to be extinct. It was only in the 1930’s that a small otter population in Big Sur was re-discovered. Since that time, otters have proliferated in Monterey Bay, although they have still not re-populated coastal areas north of Año Nuevo.

The book’s title expresses a hopeful statement. In each story of economic exploitation –of otters, whales, abalone, sardines — there is a story of recovery. The slow dawning of awareness about the impact of human activity on these creatures resulted in government regulations to protect those creatures. (Yes, the “r-word”)

The stories of exploitation in The Death and Life of Monterey Bay have a common trajectory. In each case an economic interest treated a natural resource from a short-term profitability point of view — with nearly disastrous results. In the case of the sardine canning, the business busted less than ten years from the peak of the boom. Ed (Doc) Ricketts, friend of John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell, wrote to Campbell in 1946, “For years the canners…and the fishermen have been warned they are taking too much fish. They refused to listen, selected their evidence…[and] always got their way.”

Stories like the sardine boom and bust demolish the notion that there is an inherent conflict between our society’s economic well-being and the vitality of the natural environment. There is no such conflict, since our livelihood depends on nature’s bounty. The only real conflict — and we see this conflict wherever we look, from the call to “Drill Baby Drill” in offshore waters to attacks on the Endangered Species Act — is the one driven by short-run profiteering at the expense of present and future generations.

Our market economy is particularly good at rewarding exploitation of nature and particularly bad at protecting the goose laying the golden eggs. But the greed of a few only partly explains our predicament. Human economic activity that results in extermination of species is due in large measure to the insecurity that the market economy inflicts on the vast majority of society. The shadow story in The Death and Life of Monterey Bay is the desperation of people just trying to feed their families, and in the process inadvertently wiping out populations of abalone or sardines.

A future edition of The Death and Life of Monterey Bay could include a chapter on coho and steelhead salmon, with dramatic accounts of economic interests pitted against society’s desire to prevent extinctions. On the Santa Cruz stage at this moment in the drama is the County LAFCO, which is considering approval of water service for UCSC expansion at a time when the National Marine Fisheries Service says, “It does not appear that current water supplies are sufficient to meet current demand and protect listed salmonids, let alone allow for increased demands resulting from expansion of the City’s service area”.

Because water for UCSC growth has been found to have a significant environmental impact, the only way LAFCO can approve water for UCSC growth is with a statement of overriding consideration. Such a statement is a claim that in spite of the environmental impact, the project can proceed because of its overriding value to society. According to LAFCO’s draft statement of overriding consideration, the first reason for overriding the environmental impact is, “The University of California’s Santa Cruz campus is a major employer in Santa Cruz County”. There it is in print:  a perceived conflict between our economic interest and the risk of species extinction.

When we find ourselves mired in an apparent choice between two evils, a degraded natural environment or a degraded livelihood, we need to pause to remember that the supposed conflict is a figment of our lack of imagination. We need to harness our collective genius to find solutions to our livelihood challenges that do not degrade the environment for future generations. Such solutions do not rely on the impossibility of endless growth. They rely instead on our ability to organize our economic life so that it meets the needs of all in a sustainable way.

We need to overcome the perception that we are divided by irreconcilable differences. Those differences are based on an illusion that my welfare is not bound up with yours, and that our collective welfare is not bound up with that of the salmon. Keeping sight of our common needs is the only way we’ll resolve our problems.

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3 Responses to Economic Prosperity vs. Environment?

  1. Barbara Riverwoman says:

    Wonderful article. Places the issue in a context of sustainability and mutual respect.

    • Dennis Case says:

      How to create a water shortage: a) phony up an “endangered species” to stop the Zayante Dam. b) using the permit process, make it nearly impossible for private builders to exist in the county, call it a “no growth” platform and get elected. c) together with capitalist developer cronies, construct hundreds of affordable units within the county using taxpayer funds. d) blame the hundreds of units on the state “housing element”. e) end a water hookup moratorium as soon as it begins. f) claim a neutral water policy is effective as salt water continues to intrude.

  2. Dennis Case says:

    I just did.

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