Look to the future when considering the environment

By By Myron willson

By Myron willson

When asked to provide a column for The Daily Utah Chronicle on an environmental issue of local interest, I began to consider the many issues that could be addressed.

After all, the challenges facing our campus, region, nation and planet are overwhelming. To make matters even more complex, the subject of sustainability addresses not only environmental issues, but economic, cultural and educational ones as well. In light of potential problems and opportunities, I was uncertain about where to begin.

Then I noticed two separate but related items in the local news. The first item that came to my attention was the summit convened by Sen. Orrin Hatch and Gov. Gary Herbert to consider the costs of energy legislation. In a nutshell, they wanted to publicize the cost of providing “clean air” and carbon reduction through the specific lens of several agricultural and energy producers.

The other item was the announcement that Herbert is creating a panel of experts “aimed at drilling down into the state budget and looking for fat that could be trimmed.”

Although the discussions about economy, employment and estimated costs are quite relevant and important, I was disappointed because the analysis needs to go much further than suggested. For example, questions that should also be asked include:

– What is the cost to all of society if we don’t provide clean air and carbon reduction?

– What are the medical costs associated with poor air quality?

– What are the impacts to local agriculture and consumers from rising energy and water costs?

– How much potential is there for energy savings through efficiency programs, and how many jobs would that provide?

– What is likely to happen to energy prices based on market forces such as regulation and diminishing supplies, regardless of Utah’s government’s response?

– How will businesses thrive when climate change affects water availability and global trade systems are disrupted?

– What burdens do we place on future taxpayers and citizens by avoiding these issues in the present?

By failing to ask these and other equally important questions, we run the risk of balancing today’s budget at the expense of future taxpayers and cheating ourselves in the process.

I am reminded of the old bumper sticker frequently found on large RVs: “We’re Spending our Children’s Inheritance.” Unfortunately, we seem less willing than previous generations to postpone luxury for the sake of future generations.

In contrast, think of the many sacrifices made by settlers of this region to create the infrastructure required to sustain life in the arid west.

Another great example of forward-thinking investment was the GI Bill after World War II. On the surface, this program cost taxpayers billions of dollars to pay for the education of returning servicemen and women. Although it was an expensive program, a U.S. Treasury analysis a showed nearly $7 return for every $1 invested because of increased productivity of the newly educated workforce. In other words, programs that might seem like a burden to fund can actually create conditions for future prosperity.

When looking at budgets, it is extremely important to differentiate between investment and spending, because not all expenditures are alike. Many of us are familiar with tightening our belts, but we can also differentiate between items that help us in the long term and those that are short-term pleasures. For example, we recognize the difference between cable TV and paying rent, or splurging for something extravagant versus paying tuition. Debt incurred for future benefit is wise fiscal policy, not “fat” to be trimmed.

When our elected representatives propose budgets and legislation, we need to demand that they prioritize programs that provide long-term benefits, not short-term expediency. We should not be myopic regarding expenses for programs such as education, energy efficiency, health care, renewable energy and environmental stewardship. Although they might cause some serious belt-tightening for the near term, they will also create benefits for us in the future.

As David W. Orr, a noted author, and Paul Sears, distinguished professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College, said, “This challenge…is neither liberal nor conservative8212;neither Republican nor Democrat. It is, rather, the recognition that the present generation is a Trustee standing midway between a distant past and the horizon of the future. As Trustees we are obligated to pass on the best of our civilization and the ecological requisites on which it depends8212;including a stable climate and biological diversity8212;to future generations.”

I hope our path forward includes the mindset that we are not only responsible for annual budgets, but stewards for all life to come.