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Are We Running Out of Natural Capital?

This is not a trick question but an honest ask.  We are dependent upon nature.  We can not live if the earth that hosts us is being expended, used up, exhausted.

This weekend in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof writes “We’re Rich! (In Nature).  The US has fantastic natural resources that we seem to be indifferent towards.   He says that we need to get out there to enjoy and walk in nature: It is why we are all here and what we need to center ourselves. Even the US Forest Service has gotten into the act with a fund website and this great video.  Yes, we work hard so we can go to the beach, swim, snorkel with fish, watch dolphins, whales, or we go to the mountains and hike in nature, see the wildlife, or go ski and enjoy the beauty and excitement.  Or, for some of us we go out to eat fabulous food (food that has to come from a healthy environment.)  Nature is what supports us and lets us thrive. If we take it for granted, waste it, pollute it, or destroy it, we will not be here any more.

At the Earth Policy Institute, Lester Brown saw this issue coming decades ago.  He describes it best in the Eco-Economy when he discusses that we are now at the point that the Ecological Capital is being depleted and used faster than it can be restored. This is because our economic capital does not value this in its equation, in fact micro economics accerlate the destruction of a limited natural resource.

When a natural resource is starting to be scarce, its value goes up and this drives the push to extract the resource faster until the resource is exhausted.  We have to watch out for any natural resource that is being harnessed past its sustainable level or we will all suffer the loss.

For example, the fisheries of the world are in serious decline.  Every time we can stop the over fishing we should.  In Greece, there are many islands where the fish do not exist as they were all dynamited until their eco systems collapsed.  In Scotland, there is a well studied fishery, where in the 1890’s the community banned trawling within 3 miles of shore because of over fishing. This worked and the fish returned. Then in the 1980’s, the economic interests put political pressure to reverse this law, and within two decades the fishery was exhausted and not recoverable; and with that, the local industry died.  This has played out time and time again all over the world.

In Kristof’s article, he writes about how our national forests are again under pressure where certain industries are pushing for legislation to open up 50 million acres to logging and unsustainable grazing.  We have seen this motion before and this is not a good direction.

Lester Brown is urging us to head toward an eco-economy, which is an environmentally sustainable economy that requires that the principles of ecology establish the framework for the formulation of economic policy.  Having the two studies integrated is imperative as the differences are fundamental.  Ecologists worry about nature’s limits, while economists tend not to recognize any such constraints. Economists have a great faith in the market, while ecologists often fail to appreciate the market adequately.  Ecologists see the world as interlinked network of natural systems that cannot exist without one another. Economists see the world as a set of micro economies that can substituted for each other.

There is much to do and so little time, but we do have some very good ideas about how to evolve our economy with the environment.  It will just need a lot of political will to get there.

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