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The Precious and Scarce

"Several centuries of European settlement and development of North America have made the United States one of the richest nations on the planet.  In the pursuit of commercial wealth, we have cleared land of natural vegetation and planted monoculture crops, dammed and diverted most of our major water courses, moved mountains to extract mineral wealth, replaced native wildlife with imported domestic animals, unleashed a toxic brew of complex organic chemicals into our ground and surface water, air and food supplies.

"We have been intrepid in our experiments with nature, making radical changes without knowing the full consequences, hoping that whatever they are, we will be able to cope and still reap some benefit.  However we think of ourselves politically, we have been anything but conservative.  We are among the most radical people in the history of civilization.

"The legacy of our economic adventure is a radically modified, fragmented landscape.  Intact ecosystems are rare islands surrounded by the "econo-tech" culture of the late twentieth century.  What original landscapes remain are shriveled vestiges of the original gift of nature Europeans found on this continent.  Their value lies in their fragile, irreplaceable biodiversity. Intact ecosystems are increasingly scarce and unique.  We are down to the last, and what we lose now we cannot regain.

"Ultimately, it is in this context that the demands of extractive industry must be considered.  Extractive industries are mature; they produce standardized products that are sold in worldwide markets.  There is nothing unique or special about a barrel of oil from Texas.  It is interchangeable with a barrel from Alaska, Nigeria, Venezuela, or Saudi Arabia.  The same can be said of bushels of wheat from the United States, Canada, Russia, or New Zealand, the copper in electrical wiring from Utah, Chile, or Zaire, the natural gas in pipelines, which comes from any thousands of sources and is delivered indiscriminately to users throughout the world.

"Such commodities are not only uniform, they are abundant, and oversupply regularly plagues their markets.  In most years, extractive industries struggle to cope with depressed commodity prices by boosting productivity to cut per-unit costs.  But increased productivity, which all producers pursue, serves only to maintain the downward pressure on price, and low prices render much extractive activity economically marginal. If some of it did not take place, little net value would be lost because cost is so close to revenue and because there are readily available alternative sources of supply.

"Contrast the two sets of economic values associated with natural landscape, the environmental and the extractive.  Commodities are cheap and easily replaced, and additional increments produce little net economic value.  Remnant natural landscapes are scarce, relatively unique, irreplaceable assets.  In many cases, if we opt for extractive activity to keep the local economy afloat, we will be sacrificing what is scarce and unique for what is common and cheap.  With the twenty-first century looming, we as a people can no longer afford such irrational waste.  Neither can the planet."

- Thomas Michael Power
Economist, University of Montana
Quoted from his book Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies.  Copyright © 1996 Island Press.  Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.


Photograph:  A remnant patch of tropical thorn forest near Brownsville, Texas.  In the United States, less than one percent of this unique vegetation type has survived intensive clearing of the land for agriculture.   The tropical thorn forest is inhabited by ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), Green Jays (Cyanocorax yncas), Chachalacas (Ortalis vetula), White-tipped Doves (Leptotila verreauxi) and many other Neotropical animals and plants.  Photograph by Michael Martin (USA).

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