Color-coded economies no cure for immediate environmental ills

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Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson

Are you ready for the “Blue Economy?”

Or are you still trying to figure out its predecessor, the “Green Economy?”

Maybe you’re only interested in a common sense, no-name economy? One that affords the opportunity to lead a reasonable life, doesn’t trash the environment and isn’t a playground for Wall Street gamblers who could again bring the economy crashing to its knees.

Most of us are in the latter category, I suspect.

I ask because my first enviro-related read of 2015 was an Op / Ed titled “Michigan’s blue economy a growing industry” written by executives Jon Allan and Jeff Mason.

Allan is director of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes, a cabinet-level position. Mason is executive director of the University Research Corridor, a collaboration of three universities that wants to play “a key role in creating a vibrant Michigan economy…” according to its website.

In their editorial, Allan and Mason talk about the importance of Michigan’s water to the economy, tout the Great Lakes state’s research capabilities and say Michigan is poised “to lead the nation in the blue economy that is upon us.”

It’s a feel-good piece to start the year and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But it was more “me too” and promotional than ground breaking and sounded like similar “blue economy” pieces I’ve read about Milwaukee and other Great Lakes locales.

I’ve got no ax to grind with the principles of a blue economy. If implemented they’ll help restore areas like Muskegon’s waterfront as it struggles to transition from the manufacturing era to something else, hopefully more eco-friendly. From someone who visits Muskegon regularly, that will be welcome progress.chicagoview

As envisioned by Allan and Mason, Michigan’s blue economy will be tech and research focused. Who can argue with that? It will help outsiders see that Michigan is more than Ford F-150’s and Detroit’s problems.

But you know I have blue economy concerns otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this piece.

  • Is our fascination with a blue economy the crutch du jour developed by the intelligentsia soon to be replaced by the next big idea?
  • How does a blue economy deal with unaddressed problems that are smack in our face today?

We are conditioned in our consumption economy – think big-box stores and Amazon– to eschew what we have and look forward to what’s next, needed or not.

Cars change in design and features and that creates demand. There is a new cell phone launch before you’ve figured out the basic features of your current one.

The same goes with eco-business theories.

A tenet of the green economy was that there would be a carbon tax on emissions that would accomplish two things, both good. The tax would reduce emissions – what comes out of the tailpipe of your car – and generate revenue to reduce deficits and balance budgets.

No such tax has come close to passage, though conservative and liberal economists agree on its utility and effectiveness.

But for politicians, tax increases are the third-rail not to be touched – benefits to the environment and economy be damned.

Heck, Michigan can’t even come up with a revenue solution to fix its decrepit roads, so talk of a blue economy already rings hollow.

And what will a blue economy do to prevent another Toledo water crisis? How will it deal with the aged Straits of Mackinac Enbridge pipeline that could lay waste to the Pure Michigan ads if it ruptures?

As we move to this blue economy, what about the existing mindset that allows for storage of filthy petroleum coke – pet coke – in neighborhoods in Detroit and Chicago?

Those are real health and environmental issues that are staring us in the face each day.

If I were a thinker in the University Research Corridor – East Lansing, Detroit and Ann Arbor – I’d be careful about taking my blue economy theories to Detroit’s River Rouge or Chicago’s southeast side.

And they didn’t.

The blue economy promoters from Michigan made a stop at Shedd Aquarium on Chicago’s beautiful lakefront. But there’s no pet coke there. There is however plenty of it a few miles south in largely minority neighborhoods. Making a blue economy pitch there could have been a tough sell.

I emailed Allan and Mason and asked how focus on a blue economy would deal with current problems that have been unaddressed.

“The Blue Economy is not a strategy for everything nor should it be,” Allan responded. “It is an important piece of a larger perspective or suite of tools and approaches for valuing and managing water and water resources.”

Sounds like consultant-speak but fair enough. I know Allan, who was director of environmental policy and intergovernmental affairs for Consumers Energy Co., to be an astute businessman who cares about natural resources. His daunting task is to merge the two without natural resources ending up the poor step-child.

To be effective, a blue economy will require buy-in from business interests, and that’s problematic.

Business talks a better sustainability game than it plays. When hard decisions have to be made, business will always choose shareholder value over environmental protection, always.

One needs to look no farther than the intransigence by agribusiness on meaningful ways to solve the algae problem for proof. Or to shipping interests that cling to a 19th century transport mode from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan, the primary vector for Asian carp.

My concerns aside, blue economy proponents will get no argument from me.

So let’s go blue… and green in Michigan, the economy that is. Bring on the high tech solutions to water issues and show the world that Michigan can be more than about pickup truck production.

But let’s not lose sight of the low tech, unglamorous work that remains — protecting drinking water from toxic algae is the best example. Dealing with the disaster waiting to happen that is the Enbridge pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac is another.

And don’t forget the two things Detroit is best known for when it comes to water. The billions of gallons of sewage it dumps into the Detroit River each year and shutting off water to poor people.

If you don’t take care of those problems, a blue economy may be little more than a nice academic exercise.

2 thoughts on “Color-coded economies no cure for immediate environmental ills

  1. The Blue Economy was published in April 2010 as a Report to the Club of Rome and the inspirational thinking of its author, Gunter Pauli, offers the broad base for a philosophy that focuses on finding solutions rather than just identifying problems. It was the result of a decade of painstaking research to find a hundred of the best nature-inspired technologies that could affect the economies of the world, while sustainably providing basic human needs – potable water, food, jobs, and habitable shelter. The subtitle of the book is “10 Years – 100 Innovations – 100 Million Jobs” and the report remains an important landmark in the history of environmentalism.

    It is most regrettable that in the early months of 2012 the European Union hijacked the term Blue Economy for a rather vague agenda that encompassed a range of undefined activities in the maritime sector from shipping, offshore wind energy to seabed mining. In the wake of the European Union the term is now separately being adopted by an increasing number of countries and organizations as a catch-all term for the exploitation of the oceans or the great lakes as a new economic model with the magic potential to stave off recession. In my humble opinion no one should use the term Blue Economy before they have read the book of Professor Gunter Pauli.

  2. A hydrological separation of the Chicago Shipping Canal from the Mississippi River is not an ecological separation. I personally do not know of a more effective way to get product on ships from the Mississippi onto Lake Michigan.

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