Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Secretary Zinke's Empty World
distributed 9/17/17 - ©2017

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Chuck and Mary Lou Berry, of Brookings, South Dakota. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

A leaked document from Interior Secretary Zinke gives the first clear indicator of changes to come from this summer's review of 27 national monuments. There's mixed news, with recommendations that 4 monuments be reduced in size, 6 monuments to change management practices, and 17 monuments to remain unchanged.

There will be lots of discussion, and many lawsuits, about the why and the how of any changes. In my first look -- from ecological, economic and ethical perspectives -- the recommendations for management changes at three marine monuments, in particular, seem to reflect a profound misunderstanding about how the world really works.

The review of these national monuments (generally, they are large ones created in the last 20 years) was ordered by President Trump in April. I sent Notes subscribers three alerts about the national monument review (5/22/17, 6/29/17 and 7/3/17), detailing the monuments, describing the comment process, and urging you to submit comments. Many thanks to all of you who sent in a statement!

Within the relatively short (60 days) period when official comments were received, more than 2.5 million statements were submitted. One analysis indicated that 98% of those favored preservation of the monuments. The public seems to appreciate these special places. However, as the federal website that handles all such comments noted, "The comment process is not a vote -- one well supported comment is often more influential than a thousand form letters." (Eco-Justice Ministries filed four long and detailed comments, and signed onto several other well-supported filings by coalitions.)

Today, I'll look at one aspect of the recommendation on three marine monuments, and summarize the critical error that seems to be revealed.

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The marine national monuments that may have changes in size or management are the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument (about 100 miles southeast of Cape Cod, established by Pres. Obama), and the Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll monuments (both established by Pres. George W. Bush). At all three of these monuments, commercial fishing had been prohibited. Sec. Zinke is recommending the resumption of large-scale fishing in all of these waters.

There are many reasons why these marine monuments were set aside, and why they are essential to ocean health. Pew Trusts says,

For decades, experts have touted marine reserves as refuges for species facing population declines due to overfishing, pollution, coastal development, and other pressures. And the evidence has consistently shown that protected areas can help strengthen ecosystems and rebuild biodiversity.

Overfishing is a real problem. 80% of the world's fish stocks are already fully exploited to over-exploited. The populations of predatory fish (tuna, sharks, swordfish, cod and halibut) have been reduced by 90%. Experts foresee a complete collapse of world fisheries by 2050.

Large marine reserves, where fishing is limited and environmental conditions are optimized, are essential for rebuilding the number and variety of fish in the ocean. These areas -- often including coral reefs and with abundant food supplies -- are where fish can breed and grow.

But Secretary Zinke's recommendation for three of those ocean reserves is to re-open them to commercial fishing. Rather than seeing these areas as essential to maintaining viable fish populations, the Secretary seems to see them just as places with lots of fish that can be more easily caught.

That's an astonishingly simplistic and short-sighted perspective. The loss of these safe zones in the ocean is ecologically reckless, and it gives little consideration to the needs of future human generation to stable, healthy oceans that can supply necessary food.

It is easy -- and perhaps accurate -- to see Zinke's recommendation as environmentally ignorant and as concerned primarily with jobs for the US fishing fleets. But it is also likely that the proposals are built on a badly out of date perspective that economist Herman Daly calls "empty world."

Daly, a foremost figure in environmental economics, has an important article titled, Economics for a Full World. He uses the overfishing of oceans as a primary example of the need to shift our understanding of how the world works. Daly wrote,

In the empty world, the economy was small relative to the containing ecosystem, our technologies of extraction and harvesting were not very powerful, and our numbers were small. Fish reproduced faster than we could catch them, trees grew faster than we could harvest them, and minerals in the Earth's crust were abundant. In other words, natural resources were not really scarce.

In a "full world", though, the human impact "overwhelms either the regenerative capacity of nature's sources or the assimilative capacity of nature's sinks. ... Natural resource flows are now the scarce factor, and labor and capital stocks are now relatively abundant. This basic pattern of scarcity has been reversed in a century of growth."

There's a diagram in Daly's article that shows two views of an ocean. The "empty world" picture shows lots of fish, and one small fishing boat. The "full world" picture shows a crowd of boats and nets, with one fish. He wrote, in explanation,

In the past, the fish catch was limited by the number of fishing boats and fishermen. Now it is limited by the number of fish and their capacity to reproduce. More fishing boats will not result in more caught fish. The limiting factor is no longer the manmade [sic] capital of boats, but the remaining natural capital of fish populations and their aquatic habitat.

He goes on to say, "Economic logic would tell us to invest in the limiting factor. The old economic policy of building more fishing boats is now uneconomic, so we need to invest in natural capital, the new limiting factor." We can do so, he says, "through restoration ecology, biodiversity conservation, and sustainable use practices."

To be charitable, Secretary Zinke's recommendations about the marine monuments may reflect an "empty world" perspective. He may think that the way to catch more fish is to send out more boats and to fish in all the available water. That's a mindset and a policy perspective that was in place -- and worked reasonably well -- for a very long time. But it is totally wrong in today's world. More boats fishing more waters is the path to collapse of the oceans and their fisheries.

Daly's "full world" analysis is not only about fish. Carrying the same line of thought, he writes, "What limits the use of all fossil fuels: our mining equipment and combustion engines, or the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb the greenhouse gasses?" The Trump administration, a majority in Congress (of both parties), and countless business leaders all seem to live in the empty world perspective, believing that the right way to bring the good life is to open more land and water to fossil fuel extraction, and to keep burning those fuels. That's totally wrong in today's world, too.

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I see the "empty world" perspective in the church people who have told me that Earth (God's creation) is so big that humans can't hurt it. I see it in their confidence that Earth is so abundant that we can never exhaust it.

A hundred years ago, those perspectives made some sense. But that empty world, where "the economy was small relative to the containing ecosystem", is long gone. In the full, over-exploited, stressed and destabilized world of today, we need to think and act differently.

Stewardship of God's creation -- to use one religious expression for responsible practices -- now demands that we be very active and intentional in the care and preservation of the systems that sustain us. We must take steps to protect and restore the oceans and soil that feed us. We must stop overwhelming the "sinks" that absorb our waste -- our garbage, our chemicals, and our greenhouse gasses.

The Interior Secretary's recommendations about national monuments -- to allow commercial fishing in three marine monuments, and to have more fossil fuel extraction in other monuments -- goes in the face of ecological understanding, intergenerational ethics, and even an environmental perspective on economics.

As we fight these recommendations in courts, Congress and the public sphere, we need to be clear about the scientific and philosophical/theological vision of how to live appropriately in the new reality of a "full world."


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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