April 18, 2012

Professors stress complexities of resource use

Though there were some differing views on the nature of environmental questions during the Knox Democrats’ professor panel on resource politics Tuesday night, the panelists did agree on one thing: it is complicated.

The panel, the second held this year by the Knox Democrats, included Professor of Economics Steve Cohn, Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Nic Mink and Brian Leech, who teaches history at Augustana College. It was designed to “continue the conversation” started by author Paul Greenberg Monday, according to junior Gretta Reed, the panel’s moderator.

“Each concept is complex, and resource issues are rarely black and white,” Reed said to begin the discussion. “The way we interact with our resources now will determine our future.”

Each panelist took about ten minutes to outline his research and views on resource politics before opening up the floor for questions from students. Mink, who has deeply studied fisheries, said that research started in 2004 with taking a “systems-based approach” to the snow crab fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.

“[Resource managers] are rarely interested in asking the bigger questions about the systems that these natural resources are a part of,” Mink said.

Mink’s research, he said, has been about looking at resources beyond their use value, as a resource manager would think, but seeing them “in a broader context.” That context, he said, includes issues of consumer choice, environmental systems and equality.

Leech, whose resource study has focused on mineral resources, said this topic is not necessarily “sexy” like issues surrounding food systems. He stressed, however, that mining is easier to relate to than one would think, and it has the power to “ground us.”

“When you’re eating food, you say, ‘Ah! This is an exciting thing, this piece of food,’” Leech said. “We often don’t think about that long, sometimes distant connection to the mineral when you’re sitting there playing with your iPhone … but we don’t talk about all of those rare earth minerals that went into making that phone.”

Leech outlined the major concerns of the mining industry: making it safer for people, making it safer for the environment and reducing dependence on foreign sources. But for each goal, he gave an example for how efforts toward improvement have “adverse consequences,” illustrating the complexity of resource use.

For instance, he talked about the practice of hydrauli c fracturing to find new sources of natural gas. That method is designed to be safer for the environment in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, but the adverse effects are striking.

“‘Gasland’ [a documentary] shows people who live in natural gas drilling areas, and they can light their water on fire because there’s methane leaking out,” Leech said.

Cohn turned to a more epistemological approach to issues of resource use. He outlined three “fundamental” viewpoints in the debate: in neoclassical economics, capitalism is the solution; in neo-Marxist terms, capitalism is the problem; and in other views, capitalism is irrelevant.

He addressed some particular neoclassical concepts, like the Kuznets curve, along with issues of the assumptions of economic growth.

“[Neoclassical economic theorists] believe that growth has a kind of healing aspect to it,” Cohn said. “With respect to the environment, there’s something called the Kuznets curve…. As people get richer, we have something called the positive income elasticity of the demand for environmental quality.”

He paused for some laughter. “Which is a pretentious way of saying that the richer you are, the more you care about the environment.”

He also addressed the idea that capitalism is like a bicycle: it is only stable when in motion.

During the Q&A session, junior John Cusimano brought up the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and how they fit into the debate surrounding resource use.

“There are on the horizon remarkable uses for [GMOs] … particularly with water usage,” Mink said. “There are ways to splice genes into DNA and have corn that would not be the water-hog that corn is.”

Cohn approached this issue with more caution, looking to the concept of technological change.

“We have the most advanced technology, and we’re the richest country in the world, and we find that we can’t make it without these innovations,” Cohn said. “The imperatives that we’re responding to have to be looked at more, rather than only looking at the way that we meet them.”

Earth Week and APA Symposium: Still to Come

Friday, April 20

-5-minute skill share sponsored by KARES ­— 4 p.m., Ferris Lounge

-Art is a Weapon with Eric Drooker, painter, graphic designer and frequent cover artist for the New Yorker — 7 p.m., Round Room, Ford Center for the Fine Arts

Saturday, April 21

-Bike ride to an ice cream shop ­— 11 a.m., meeting place TBA

-Work day in the Knox Community Garden ­— 1-3 p.m., Community Garden (on South St. next to Eco-House)

-The Cavern Beat (Beatles cover band), tie-dying and free smoothies made with a bike-powered blender ­— 5 p.m., Seymour Lawn

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