EDITORIAL: What’s a species worth?

IF YOU PLAN TO ATTEND an annual meeting of the Columbia Economic Development Corporation, bring a calendar. Otherwise this year looks a lot like the last few years’ event. Having the calendar allays fears that the next white man wearing a tie who comes to the podium will welcome you to the Twilight Zone.

If you’re a little jittery because the featured speaker looks familiar, he should. The honored guest at the non-profit CEDC’s signature public event April 30 was investment advisor Hugh Johnson. He’s the same person who spoke the last couple of years. And this year his message sounded similar to what he’d said before, and his predictions have been accurate.

Mr. Johnson knows more than most humans about how markets and investors behave. He’s a very entertaining speaker who spices his cloudbursts of data with self-deprecating humor. We’re still in the longest economic expansion in the nation’s history and he told us that “investors continue to believe the expansion will continue.” But right now we’re “somewhat near the end of this cycle,” which will lead to a slowdown in 2020 or 2021. Enter that on your calendar. It’s a much better guess than the predictions of others.

He had some observations about the labor market, too; the unemployment rate here is so low that it’s hard to find workers. He said “women are coming back into the labor force” and attributed that to baby boomers who no longer have obligations to care for children or elder parents. That sounded like an explanation from another planet or a different century, but he made the statement in passing and no one asked for his source.

It was all in service of a positive presentation about the immediate future of investment and the business cycle. He also offered encouraging statements about Columbia County where, he said, the economic future “really, really looks good.”

Last Saturday was warm and sunny enough to qualify as spring-like. A couple of mud wasps made their way to the attic window. Outside, near the crab apple tree, was a bumblebee. Just one. The tree was blooming. It used to be that you could hear the whole tree buzz from the pollinators. The silence was noticeable. Maybe the bees–bumble and honey–have found better blossoms elsewhere. It’s possible they’re gone for good. Not a promising sign for the economy.

A week after the CEDC annual meeting the United Nations issued a 1,500-page “summary” of worldwide threats to animal and plant wildlife. It’s a project of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. It documents that most of us humans aren’t doing ourselves, our children or the other living things on the planet any favors by overdeveloping coastal areas, clearing forests and destroying habitat, polluting oceans and fresh water sources, narrowing or otherwise tinkering with genetic diversity, polluting the air and continuing to heat the atmosphere. It mentions the dwindling wild bee population.

Mr. Johnson’s remarks were helpful for people who have funds to invest. He wasn’t asked to speak about the economic effects of climate change, although it’s likely he could. And likewise the CEDC meeting was its traditional way of reporting to the public on its progress in assisting development in the county and foster greater prosperity.

But if small, local agencies like CEDC don’t take the lead in acknowledging the threats and exploring ways to make the county resilient and encourage climate-change neutral development, then why would we expect that government or international agencies will do it for us?

The CEDC has turned itself around from a self-dealing club a decade ago into an indispensible public agency that assists all kinds of economic growth in this county. But its portfolio is incomplete in the absence of a leadership role preparing for a future of disruptions that are already underway.

This can only be accomplished by adding new voices to the mix. Hugh Johnson is an investment superstar. He’s earned that status. But through no fault of his own, his luster as speaker sends the wrong message about CEDC–one of complacency rather than urgency–of satisfaction with the status quo when change is already upon us.

Not everybody who lives here wants to participate in shaping development throughout the county. But it’s worth testing the proposition that there are ways to bring more diverse voices to the CEDC table. Or, better, bring the CEDC table to the communities where diversity thrives.

The CEDC should pursue its development projects. What it needs to change is the lens through which it views them.

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