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A Natural Stewardship Amendment

By Daniel T. Blumstein
Originally published in the Huffington Post

A number of state constitutions explicitly gives legislators the responsibility for stewardship of natural resources for the benefit of future generations.

For instance, Article I, section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution says:

The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.

This is a forward-thinking idea that dates back (in North America) at least to the Iroquois, who evaluated their decisions by thinking about what the consequences of an action would do seven generations in the future. This idea should be more widely adopted so that our grandchildren (and their grandchildren) have a future that doesn't include ecological collapse.

Let's make a New Year's pledge to the future. Let's work towards wider adoption of this simple idea. Let's work to create a National Natural Stewardship Amendment.

Why? In a line, because we systematically undervalue the future and this undervaluation has led to widespread environmental degradation that threatens the foundations of civilization.

Sounds extreme? Just ponder the fact that regardless of our political affiliations or our religious beliefs, we all suffer the costs of a deteriorating environment. We all suffer from the toxification of our planet. Rich or poor, we all suffer the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals and the toxic mix of chemicals now in our air, water, and food. For instance, widespread production of estrogen mimicking chemicals puts us on a path for our daughters and granddaughters to become reproductively mature at earlier ages, while our sons and grandsons will have lower sperm counts and more feminized genitals and behavior. Cancers and metabolic disorders of all sorts will increase in response to the mix of chemicals that "support" our modern lifestyles.

Regardless of our political or religious beliefs, we all benefit from the ecosystem services that pollinators such as bees provide. Without them, commercial agriculture would stop. We all benefit from the water filtration and flood and storm control that healthy wetlands, watersheds, and barrier islands provide. We all benefit from the CO2 reduction provided by an intact forest. We all benefit from clean water and intact fisheries.

Yet we continue, as a society, to engage in activities that increase the production of CO2 and toxic chemicals, decimate both pollinators and natural habitat, and poison water and destroy fisheries through the destruction of estuaries, the creation of dead zones, and overfishing. Our focus is clear: maximize short-term profits. But, stewardship requires taking a longer view.

It's important to realize that a 'rational' economic decision is predicated on a number of assumptions. A key one is how long you want to stay in the game. While modern economists speak of 'future discounting' and setting a 'discount rate,' they focus on decades. By contrast, the Iroquois focused on generations.

If we value the future, we will take better care of the resources we are borrowing from our children and grandchildren.

If we don't value the future, we do as we are doing and engage in short-term profit maximization with no regard for what we are leaving behind for future generations.
The time for this shortsighted behavior has ended. The threats we face in the coming decades require action, and they require it quickly. If our society has learned anything in this past year of fires, floods, and severe weather events it's that the future is going to be tough on many of us. If we care about the welfare of our fellow citizens and indeed, citizens of our Earth, we should care about taking care of our natural resources.

An Amendment that requires us to pause and evaluate our actions to consider the long-term impacts of those decisions would force us to discuss the consequences of our actions and be clear about our discount rate. What is the moral justification for a short-term discount rate? Shouldn't we care about a future for our children, and their children?

A National Natural Stewardship Amendment would cut across partisan lines and celebrate the values that we all share in living in a healthful environment that enhances our lives and protects us from sickness and disease. Ultimately, the Amendment would force legislators to consider the future and welfare for all citizens of the United States, current and future, rather than the welfare of industries that, through industrial lobbyists, already have too much legislative power. An Amendment would provide a legal basis to ensure that future generation's rights are protected. It's the right thing to do now.