Two differing views of US resources -- from ecologists, economists

For many people, nothing is more beautiful than a tree. But for others, a tree's real value is in its lumber and what can be created from it.

This basic difference in viewpoint holds not just for trees but for all natural resources and is at the root of a number of ongoing political controversies, particularly in the realm of economic, environmental, and energy policy.

To conservative economists, a resource is not simply a patch of land, a species of plant or animal, a hunk of wood, or a lump of copper. These objects alone, they say, have no intrinsic value. A raw material becomes a valuable resource only when operated upon by human ingenuity and effort. A plot of land, for instance, can be transformed into a vegetable patch, a golf course, a condominium, a warehouse, or other socially beneficial things. Thus, these economists can argue that US resources are essentially unlimited.

But at the same time, they see scarcity as inevitable because people always want more than they have. Thus, society must have a way to parcel out these resources. And, while far from perfect, the market is ultimately the fairest way to do this, they argue.

This is a starkly different view from those holding an ecological perspective. Their emphasis is on human activities as part and parcel of the complex interactions of nature. Mankind's role is seen as one of stewardship, rather than ownership. Other species of plants and animals have an intrinsic value and an innate right to life. They are not simple raw materials. Also, basic biology sets fundamental limits that cannot be exceeded without catastrophic consequences.

The almost unbridgeable gap in the views on this crucial issue was brought home forceably by two recent events: a conference held at Montana State University by the Center for Political Economy and Natural Resources and a report issued by a new environmental think-tank, Carrying Capacity Inc.

The introduction to Carrying Capacity's report begins with the tragic tale of deer on the Kaibab Plateau, north of the Grand Canyon, in 1925. When bounty hunters wiped out the deer's natural predators, the deer herd mushroomed, growing beyond the 40,000 the plateau could support. As a result, the ecosystem was damaged and thousands of deer starved.

''(This) story . . . illustrates carrying capacity in its starkest . . . form: A certain number of organisms can be nourished by the resources in a given area on a sustainable basis. Anything over that number degrades the environment and the organisms may suffer when impoverished resources cannot nourish them,'' the report warns.

Carrying Capacity was formed two years ago to study resource issues and develop positions that the entire environmental movement can use to argue more effectively its positions on various public-policy issues, explains executive director Judith Jacobsen. Its first report, ''US Carrying Capacity: An Introduction,'' summarizes the environmental perspective on the nation's resources.

Pointing out that the commercial fish catch from US waters has been declining , that overgrazing is contributing to the ''desertification'' of a large area, and that soil erosion is more widespread and severe than ever before, Ms. Jacobsen's group warns that Americans have outstripped the carrying capacity of their environment and must reduce their numbers and level of consumption to avert ecological catastrophe.

Because of the opposite conclusions on the nature of resources, ecologists and many economists also hold opposite views on technology. To the conservative economists, technology is generally positive because it allows increasingly more efficient use of raw materials. To environmentalists, however, technology has generally allowed people to erode the environment ever more efficiently.

Director John Baden and his colleagues at the conservative Center for Political Economy and Natural Resources can dismiss Carrying Capacity's warnings of disaster because they argue that all forms of development are ''reversible'' and various resources can substitute for each other. If farmland, for instance, becomes rare and valuable enough, then people will tear up parking lots and reconstitute the soil. Or, if economic factors favor them, they will set up hydroponic operations to grow crops in a factory-like fashion. Or, if fish become too expensive, then people will switch to other forms of food.

''Studies like this do not take human responses into account,'' Dr. Baden points out.

The center has recently been making a name for itself in economic circles by developing and promoting what its lanky, mustachioed director calls ''The New Resource Economics.'' Essentially, this is an attempt to provide an underpinning in economic theory for the politically conservative belief that a market approach to the management of natural resources is generally preferrable to the centalized ''scientific'' planning that the federal government has been utilizing.

The conservative resource economists read an entirely different set of lessons in much of the environmental degradation which the US has experienced.

One lesson is Garret Hardin's ''tragedy of the commons,'' a principle that holds that the inevitable result of publicly owned resources is their deterioration. In the case of a commonly shared resource, each individual has no incentive to conserve because if he does, then someone else will simply use more. The conservative economists argue that the way to avoid this problem is to turn as much of the nation's public resources over to private interests as possible.

The second lesson they see is that government control of resources is ''intrinsically perverse'' because special interests can unduly influence politicians and bureaucrats to grant them special favors while spreading the cost over the entire country.

To environmentalists, many of whom consider corporate America to be the ultimate despoiler of mother earth, such free-market advocacy is viewed with deep suspicion. ''Property rights haven't stopped the deterioration of farmlands ,'' rebuts Carrying Capacity's Jacobsen. Environmentalists argue that the ''free market'' has repeatedly failed to account for the value of clean air, water, and ecological diversity in its drive to maximize profits. Therefore, more government control in the form of environmental regulations are needed.

Implicit in the environmental view of resources, as well, is a rejection of the conservative concepts of reversibility and substitutability. Once a species of plant or animal becomes extinct, there is no way to replace it. Once an area's biological carrying capacity is exceeded by a certain amount, environmental deterioration is inevitable and in many cases irreversible.

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