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
- 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).