Eco-economix: The Last Words of the Codfish
“I think a lot of people are concerned that if they go overboard about the environment, it’ll have a negative effect on the economy,” said my friend.
“That’s just a total misunderstanding of reality,” I said. “Don’t they know that the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment?”
My friend smiled at me. “Silver Donald” (I could hear him thinking ) “you’re a fanatic.” No, my friend, I’m a realist. I can connect the dots.
We were sitting in a Halifax coffee shop, not noticing (I thought later) that our province is an economic disaster zone as the direct result of not caring for our environment: an eco-economic disaster.
Nova Scotia was once a province of big trees – really big trees, trees that produced boards as wide as a sheet of plywood. Nova Scotia provided masts for the British navy in the age of sail. Now it can’t supply the spars for a single modest schooner; when Bluenose II needed a boom, it had to be shipped in from BC. Nova Scotia’s forest canopy was once 120 feet high; now it’s 60 feet, maximum, and we’re reduced to ripping up saplings to feed pulp mills.
The Acadian climax forest was a capital asset that had taken centuries to mature. It could have given us an income forever. But we squandered it, and we’ll never allow it to grow back.
Economic benefits always come with a cost – but the cost rarely gets counted. Open net-pen salmon farming produces jobs, yes – but only a few minimum-wage jobs, which go to foreign temporary workers; meanwhile, the environmental damage from net pens wipes out much better jobs in lobstering and the recreational fishery. The Alberta tar sands produce jobs in northern Alberta, true, but elsewhere in the country, somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 manufacturing jobs have vanished because of our soaring petro-dollar, which also hurts east-coast lobster exporters. There’s no free lunch.
The most dramatic eco-economic disaster in our region has been the cod fishery, another capital asset, which sustained the whole region for 500 years and then vanished in a few decades. For at least 20 years, from 1970 to 1990, everyone from Newfoundland’s inshore fishermen to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to the marine biologists in the region’s universities knew the cod and other groundfish were heading for commercial collapse, if not outright extinction.
But governments continued to pour subsidies into fish plants and boat construction while the industry grew more and more “efficient,” using high tech instruments and massive bottom-scouring draggers to vacuum up spawning masses of fish. Stop? Hell, no! Reducing the scale of the slaughter would mean economic ruin.
By the early 1990s, government had to face reality and declare a moratorium on the ground fishery for a few years, until the stocks could recover. That was nearly a quarter of a century ago. The cod have not come back. They will probably never come back. The marine ecology of the North Atlantic has shifted, and the niche once occupied by the cod has apparently been filled. The cod may be gone for good.
That ecological collapse is a direct result of enslavement to short-sighted economics at the expense of the environment. But now look at the economic cost of that ecological irresponsibility: 40,000 jobs lost, a whole industry wiped out, no more tax payments from the industry or its employees or the people who served those employees, declining populations as dozens of fishing communities fade away. In wiping out the codfish, we killed our own communities.
Was that good for the economy?
Here’s the equation: economic blindness equals environmental disaster equals economic collapse. Long-term ecological health is an essential condition for sustained prosperity. I repeat: the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment.
Remember this: when a food animal disappears, its predators also vanish. That bubbling sound you hear is the codfish, uttering its last words.
You’re next, it says. You’re next.
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