So what is a resource economist?

So what is a resource economist?


“So what is a resource economist (or an environmental economist) anyway?”

Many people ask me this.  They may know what an economist is (or think they do, anyway – an economist is a social scientist, not an accountant or a financial analyst), but they may be flummoxed when I say I was trained an environmental economist.  “What does the environment have to do with the economy?” they might ask.  To me, it’s an odd question. My answer would be “everything.”  All you have to do is read the paper or watch the news, and the stories just leap out at you.  Internationally?  Try the recent “island building” by China, which has to do with strategic control of the South China Sea, but also with control of valuable mineral deposits on continental shelves.  Nationally?  If the California drought weren’t enough (see lead article), think of fracking, or President Obama’s recently proposed clean water regulation.  Locally?  Recent proposals to change mining regulations in Maine.  Closure of the scallop fishery. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The list goes on.

An economist is someone who studies the ways in which people and societies choose to allocate their scarce resources. We may make recommendations on how to do that most efficiently, or most equitably, or in order to maximize “consumer surplus.”  As a resource economist (or an environmental economist – it is a somewhat artificial distinction, and I am trained in both), I specialize in integrating environmental issues into planning and policy, in order to make more effective and responsible economic decisions.

It’s not always easy – environmental services like flood control or groundwater recharge, or environmental damages like pollution-induced asthma or damage to wetlands are not easily translated into economic terms. But what is not measured cannot be well-managed.  I believe in and advocate for sustainable economic development – using our resources in such a way so that future generations can be at least as well off as the current generation.  That phrase -sustainable economic development – has been misused, misaligned, and is, as Nobel economist Robert Solow once put it, “an essentially vague concept.”  But he also noted that vague does not mean useless or empty.  We should use the concept of sustainability as a guide to policies on investment, conservation, and resource use.  Since resource use includes all consumption and production activities, that covers a lot of ground.  All of economics, as a matter of fact.  So rather than a sub-discipline of economics, I prefer to think of it as the “uber-discipline.” 

What do you think?

2 Replies to “So what is a resource economist?”

  1. I used to think its a principle that has to do with conservation, utilisation/consumption and local socio-economic beneficiation. To understand it, one has to look at it locally. For example – Take a big dam found locally and research, investigate and measure how it can be utilised, how it can benefit the people, how to minimise negative impacts of the utilisation, and how much of revenue its utilisation can produce. All of these in local economic terms of an environmental resource.

    1. That’s true, Pholi. There’s micro resource economics – for example, I just wrote a report for a client on restoring native fish passage on the Presumpscot river, a small heavily dammed river here in Maine. For me, that’s the most exciting part. But there’s also macro resource economics – like the “resource curse,” for example.

      Thanks for your comment!

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