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A brief note on environment and economics


Maryland Department of The EnvironmentA recent Baltimore Sun editorial highlighted the Bay restoration effort and its link to the economy. “Efforts to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay too often are cast as environmentalism versus economic opportunity. Whether it’s restrictions on poultry waste; increasing the “flush tax” to pay for upgraded sewage treatment; or requiring new, more effective septic systems, opponents can be counted on to complain of “job-killing” regulations or tax increases. But that’s not really true — and a fish kill in the Inner Harbor demonstrates why. It’s not just the health of fish or crabs that’s at stake, but the livelihood and well-being of people.”


The Baltimore Sun is to be commended for addressing a very complex issue and framing it against a simple example – a fish kill in the Inner Harbor. Clearly, a bad smelling environment is not conducive to high customer traffic.

How to rationally balance the need for a clean and healthy environment against legitimate economic objectives when those goals appear to be in conflict is not always so simple, and is not a trivial question. Proposed solutions that address either goal, absent consideration for the other fail the rationality test.

Too often cases are made by advocates that environmental goals trump any economic considerations. After all, who could argue against a clean environment?  Economic interests point out that associated costs may be beyond their capacity to absorb, and jobs may be lost and businesses closed. Seeing such issues as either/or choices is polarizing and can unnecessarily generate conflict. The fish kill example shows one instance where investment in environmental improvements can also yield economic benefit. There are certainly many other such examples if we have the will to look.

Yet, one size does not fit all, and regulations that do not recognize diversity of conditions rarely produce anything but more conflict. Traditional advocacy approaches, which often lead to litigation, are usually the least cost-effective paths to broadly supported solutions. In the worst case, litigation can leave it to the courts, which have the least relevant expertise, to craft solutions.

The important message is be sure we support cooperative processes that create effective collaboration between those with environmental and economic expertise. Invariably, when such collaboration occurs, open-minded individuals can find and agree to sensible and cost-effective solutions. Each case, where conflicting interests occur, merits such consideration. And, sufficient regulatory flexibility should be provided to allow for unique and imaginative resolution to those conflicts. 

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