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Creative bookkeeping and the fate of snaildarters

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
January 23, 2003


"Contrary to popular belief, there is a fundamental contradiction between continued material economic growth and the maintenance of bio-integrity." — William E. Rees

Having been recently introduced to the concept of ecosophy, I have made it a point to engage others in this new conversation. A perk associated with this endeavor is an ongoing evolution of thought made possible by the input of others. Of course, a greater diversity of opinions contributes to the philosophical inquiry. With this in mind I now seek perspective that may seem diametrically opposed to my own.

Recently I was exposed to such a perspective in a rather round about way, resulting in a robust discussion aimed entirely at achieving common ground in regards to balancing ecological preservation with economic growth. Amidst conflicting ideologies, a definition was requested. One I did not have.

The word we were searching for was a term, not unlike ecosophy, that placed ecological consideration squarely at the forefront of economic planning. At the time I was not aware that such a term existed, so we brainstormed, attempting to create such a word. We knew this term must speak to the concept of economic environmentalism so we decided to start there. Hybrids such as eco-enviro, enviro economics, econviro, ecoecon, and economental didn't pass muster because they just sounded stupid. So we switched gears.

Admitting it was an inherently subjective exercise, my partner in verbalism challenged me with the question: "Is the snaildarter worth saving?" As expected, I said "absolutely." He was not convinced. And there was the rub. Here was a man who had been culturally conditioned to always put the myth of free market economics first, and as we all know everything in the market has a price. So now not only did I need a new word, I also needed a way to introduce it in such a way as to further the conversation.

Understanding that the snail-darter, or any other species of fish, has no concept of economics - other than their own, ethics dictate the snaildarter's existence be protected from systematic disregard. And if that means humans must change destructive behaviors - so be it. As my friend stated, the concept of worth is completely subjective. Worth denotes value. What I don't understand is how someone could assign a price on an entire species, and what exactly would be figured into the accounting.

Unable to divorce myself from reality, I was then tasked with finding a way that allows species to pay their own way, without being consumed, commodified, or crowded out. Equal partners in the game of life, pelicans, whales and dolphins would be allowed a respect currently not given them. This also holds true for sequoias, rattlesnakes, and lightning bugs. This however means man would have to vacate his self prescribed place atop the pedestal.

Back at the computer I word searched ‘environmental economics. It was then I was introduced to the word we had been looking for- Environomics.

According to Dr. William Rees of the University of British Columbia's School of Community and Regional Planning, the key to understanding environomics is knowing the cultural construct we refer to as "the economy," does not occur in a vacuum. One must also truly see economics as an " inextricably integrated, completely contained, and wholly dependent subsystem of the ecosphere." Understanding human beings remain ecological entities helps too. This begs the question: "Is humanity worth saving?"

We need to remember, as species are lost to extinction, biodiversity is diminished, and the ecological bottom-line becoming that much closer. Another question to ask is how much of a margin of error do humans need to ensure our own survival. As the population of Homosapiens sapiens increases other species are pushed out of existence. By removing links in the biological chain of life, we weaken the viability for the rest of the biotic community we call home.

Environomics is all about recognizing the worth of things, in place, as they are. Without rainforests there is less rain. With less rain there is less flora. With less flora there is less fauna. With less flora and fauna there is less food. With less food there is less folks. And without folks there is no free market. From an environomics perspective the question is not "Is the snaildarter worth saving?" Instead we ask, "Can we afford not to save the snail darter?"

The fact that Greens and Republicans are sitting down to ponder how best to balance ecology with economy is a good thing. Now if only there was a way to expedite the process before the question is no longer relevant.

I say it's worth the effort.

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