Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Opinion

Column: Growth at all costs is road to ruin

Economic growth is often called the tide that floats all boats. Most people like economic growth: Democrats and Republicans, virtually all economists, small businesses and large corporations, poor people and wealthy alike. Given our experience since 2006, it's hard to argue against growth.

Economic contraction and sluggish growth over the past several years has been difficult for many Floridians. Of course, virtually all kinds economic growth stress or degrade the environment in some way: bulldozing trees to make room for houses or roads; excessive water or mineral extraction required to support the activities of more and more people; the concentration of wastes or chemicals associated with expanding agriculture and livestock operations, and so on.

This relationship seems so clear that some people simplistically pit environmental protection against economic growth. It's either jobs or the environment, and most people want jobs. Others claim that we need both, but they don't often articulate how that is possible, or what it would look like. Such articulation must begin by clarifying that "the environment" is not just the birds and the bunnies, it is the source of our air, water, food, fiber and much of our recreation. The environment is our life-support system and a crucial ingredient of our economy, supporting tourism, agriculture and the rest of our commerce.

Those on the left side of the political spectrum often demand that government take action to protect the environment. They generally accept limitations on our behavior and activities, and view taxes used for environmental preservation and restoration as a good thing. Many of those on the right (including much of our current political leadership in Tallahassee) refer to environmental regulation as a form of job assassination, arguing that environmental protection stifles economic growth. They speak out against the perils of government intrusion in our lives, often calling for reduced taxes.

Some on the far right parade around in tricornered hats, demanding a return to the good old days of limited government and maximum liberty. The problem with this mentality is that we are not living in 1776 or even 1976; Florida is no longer a vast, unoccupied territory. The Sunshine State now has more than 19 million permanent residents, hundreds of thousands of part-time (mostly winter) residents, and it welcomes more than 80 million tourists each year. Growth promoters have gotten their wish: Florida has grown tremendously since World War II, but now what? More growth?

We cannot have constant growth, small government, maximum liberty, and a life-sustaining environment. Four decades ago, Florida leaders (both Democrats and Republicans) took steps to protect not just "the environment" but our life-support systems. They recognized that if we wanted more growth, we needed to accept environmental management.

What does this mean? Environmental management refers to limitations on our behavior that enhance not just environmental quality — but human health as well. Environmental management is necessary because there are now so many of us, and the unrestricted activities of so many people produce harmful concentrations of wastes and excessive demands on vital resources such as water.

In recent years, Floridians have been seduced by a message of low taxes, limited government, and lip service for "the environment." As this seduction continues, we will continue to experience degradation of our life-support systems: periodically closed beaches; rivers, springs and lakes full of algae; fewer fish to catch; more expensive water (as we tap lower quality sources that require more expensive treatment); less open space for people and animals; increased mortality of manatees, panthers, and many other plant and animal species, and so forth.

If we insist upon fanning the flames of population and economic growth, we simply must accept environmental management: We must accept rules calling for periodic inspection of septic tanks; we have to accept limitations on the amount of water we use; we need to accept rules limiting the use of lawn fertilizer during the rainy season; and we must protect wetlands so they continue to provide us the steady stream of free ecosystem services (such as flood storage and water purification) we have long taken for granted.

If we reject the environmental management imperative, Floridians will soon fall into one of two camps: those old enough to remember what a wonderful collection of places Florida once was; and those younger or more recently arrived, who confront an increasingly degraded environment and expensive place to live, one that leaves them wondering why so many people moved to Florida in the first place. Eventually, even the memories of old Florida will disappear.

Christopher F. Meindl is the Frank E. Duckwall Professor of Florida Studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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