It's the Economy (and the Environment), Stupid

This 117,000-square-foot Lowe’s superstore opened in mid-January 2009 on Davisville Road in North Kingstown, R.I. It was out of business by late 2011, costing some 100 people their jobs and leaving behind an enormous impervious footprint that exacerbates the pollution problem caused by stormwater runoff. This development monstrosity in the Quonset Business Park has been vacant for nearly twice as long as it was open. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

This 117,000-square-foot Lowe’s superstore opened in mid-January 2009 on Davisville Road in North Kingstown, R.I. It was out of business by late 2011, costing some 100 people their jobs and leaving behind an enormous impervious footprint that exacerbates the pollution problem caused by stormwater runoff. This development monstrosity in the Quonset Business Park has been vacant for nearly twice as long as it was open. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Environmental regulations can protect the economy and human health. It's also possible to grow smart and be profitable.

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

Leading up to last year’s midterm elections, the two-word phrase “economic growth” flowed freely from the mouths of incumbents and candidates alike. Talk of job creation easily trumped all other issues combined.

Now, some six months since Nov. 4, those words continue to echo in the hallways and chambers of southern New England’s three statehouses. To deliver on their campaign promises to create more jobs, lawmakers in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have inevitably focused on building more of the same.

In February, when Gov. Gina Raimondo announced her six nominees to the I-195 Redevelopment Commission, she said it was the first step in advancing efforts to revitalize vacant land in Providence. “We’re focused on expanding opportunity and creating jobs for Rhode Island families, and the 195 land can be a key lever to attract businesses and boost economic growth,” Raimondo said.

Not surprisingly, the combined experience of Raimondo’s six nominees was real-estate rich. Pleased that Rhode Island’s new governor made these commission appointments a priority, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, said, “The redevelopment of the former I-195 land is a major opportunity to help reinvigorate Rhode Island’s economy.”

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, added, “This valuable land has the potential for great job growth and economic development activity, and we must work collaboratively to turn these opportunities into reality in the near future.”

“We need to catalyze Rhode Island’s economy by capitalizing upon resources such as the developable land where I-195 once stood,” Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said.

It seems that the nearly 20 acres unlocked by the relocation of a section of Interstate 195 is being viewed by lawmakers as the panacea to Rhode Island’s economic woes. This chunk of freed-up land separated by the Providence River certainly presents the city and the state with opportunity. In fact, many people and interests, in state and out, are eager to see how this newfound space will be used.

Will those in power continue to drive us down the well-traveled, bumpy road of economic development that delivered us the 38 Studios debacle, a $35 million budget deficit and a long run of double-digit unemployment rates, or will we change lanes and embrace an economic shift that accounts for sustainability and environmental health?

One of the development ideas for the I-195 land is from a Dallas-based developer seeking to build privatized student housing. Not exactly a job sustainer once built, and certainly not a fresh economic idea.

Another old-school idea has the new Pawtucket Red Sox ownership group moving the team to Providence and reportedly asking the state for $120 million to build a new stadium on I-195 land, some 7 miles from historic and well-attended McCoy Stadium. The average attendance at PawSox games during the past five seasons was 7,872 fans a game, and it was only a decade ago that, with a paid attendance of 688,421, the 2005 PawSox ranked fourth among all minor-league teams in any sport in North America.

How Rhode Island decides to use the I-195 land will go a long way in shaping the future of the state, and perhaps even the region. Instead of continuing to bank on exaggerated economic promises — i.e., Curt Schilling’s short-lived video-game company that falsely promised to create 450 local jobs — and the lure of endless development, perhaps these 20 acres will help change Rhode Island and southern New England’s economic paradigm.

Some of nature’s perfect pollinators, honeybees, bumble bees and sweat bees, at work on wingstem. (Nancy Adamson/for The Xerces Society)

Some of nature’s perfect pollinators, honeybees, bumble bees and sweat bees, at work on wingstem. (Nancy Adamson/for The Xerces Society)

Natural value
The worldwide economic model and national accounting have long ignored the benefits that nature provides. The popular economic development model, at least to those in many boardrooms, that overuses and misuses natural resources is unsustainable and ignores the inherent value of a healthy environment.

There’s a debate going on in Rhode Island now about sacrificing some of the land that helps protect the state’s 71,000 acres of freshwater and coastal wetlands to development wants.

The illusion that we can continue to build our way out of an economic downturn at the expense of the environment persists. Timothy Stasiunas of the Rhode Island Builders Association testified before a Senate committee in late March that new development standards would allow the construction industry to lead the state out of recession.

The hearing was for a bill that would create a new statewide standard for building closer to wetlands. Developers basically told the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture that it takes too long to get approval, and there is too much paperwork.

“This type of scenario has contributed to the lost decade ... that has plagued our economy for years, if not decades,” Stasiunas said.

In Rhode Island, since the early 1980s, development has sharply outpaced population growth.

Nature, at no charge, provides drinkable water (wetlands purify it), breathable air (ocean microbes produce half the oxygen we breathe), healthy food (pollinators deliver us fruits, nuts and vegetables) and natural waste treatment (worms turn waste into soil). Environmental regulations designed to protect these ecosystem services, which are substantially more valuable to society than, say, subprime mortgages and derivatives, are often viewed as an impediment to economic development.

Plenty of research, however, suggests placing sustainability ahead of profitability won’t stymie the economy or kill jobs. In fact, protecting the environment and investing in healthy ecosystems has the duel benefit of sustaining the economy and protecting public health.

“Without full valuation of less-tangible natural benefits from ecosystems, use will remain unsustainable and degradation inevitable, leading to the potential collapse of important ecosystem functions and services. It is increasingly evident that there is a need to develop an economic model that accurately reflects benefits to people from the environment and the costs associated with ecosystem degradation,” according to a 2010 United Nations Environment Programme policy brief. “Getting this right will help move us toward sustainability.”

But a powerful cabal of politicians and special interests continues to argue that environmental regulations are too expensive and hinder the economy. For years, many mainstream economists have dismissed the claims of “limits to growth," arguing that regulation can impact workers by, for example, forcing businesses to close or relocate to places with weaker regulations.

Justin Katz, research director for the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, which has a mission to “return government to the people by opposing special interest public policy and advancing proven free-market solutions,” said restrictions, such as environmental regulations, minimum-wage mandates and the Affordable Care Act, represent huge costs and place burdens on businesses, especially small-business owners.

He said Rhode Island’s renewable-energy mandates are particularly egregious. Katz also said the state should implement a moratorium on all new environmental regulations and purge the system of unnecessary restrictions that put an undue burden on economic development.

“People want to live in a nice place,” said Katz, noting that environmental regulations can cause abuses of the free-market system.

The R.I. Center for Freedom & Prosperity has been one of most vocal opponents of the RhodeMap RI initiative, which was established to create long-term objectives for housing, land use, transportation and economic development.

The idea is to make the nation’s second-most densely populated state more walkable, bikeable, and less centered on cars and sprawl. In rural areas, the concept aims to preserve local character and open space. Zoning changes would allow for combined development and would help protect land for recreation and agriculture.

Basically, the idea is to stop construction that stresses natural resources and consumes swaths of open space.

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Opponents, such as Rep. Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, are concerned the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could forcibly require municipalities and/or property owners to forfeit their property rights. It's a great example of the type of baseless fear-mongering that now dominates political leadership.

However, the very real possibility of actual land-taking, by a non-federal government entity, has elicited barely a whisper from the Statehouse. Houston-based Spectra Energy has said it might have to take some land in Tiverton, Little Compton and/or Burrillville temporarily or perhaps permanently during the construction and expansion of a natural-gas pipeline.

There has been little to no outcry from the General Assembly about an out-of-state, for-profit company taking local land to, in essence, increase climate-changing greenhouse-gas emissions. The energy company is granted the power of eminent domain through a 77-year-old law, the Natural Gas Act of 1938. Spectra has since scrapped plans to take land in Tiverton and Little Compton, but the possibility still exists in Burrillville.

Mike Stenhouse, founder of the R.I. Center for Freedom & Prosperity, has called the RhodeMap RI initiative another affordable-housing mandate. Mike Puyana of the Rhode Island Tea Party has claimed there is deep concern, particularly among those living in rural areas, that this proposed template for state planning and economic development will strip away municipal authority in those communities.

In 2013, opponents — mostly rural municipalities and environmentalists — of Rhode Island’s controversial “slopes” bill made essentially the same argument. The General Assembly passed and then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the development-friendly bill into law.

A related bill that would make Rhode Island more accommodating to development by allowing building closer to wetlands has the support of the construction industry. The proposed zoning change would allow construction closer to wetlands in six Rhode Island communities and shift much of the jurisdiction over granting exemptions to the state.

Concern about striping away municipal authority hasn’t been broached regarding this bill. The hypocrisy would be laughable if it wasn't so shortsighted and damaging.

Unchecked and under-regulated economic growth does a poor job of protecting the environment and public health. If it had, taxpayers wouldn’t be helping to fund the remediation of brownfields — Rhode Island alone has some 1,800 — and nonprofits wouldn’t be helping to restore waterways polluted by the likes of General Electric.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state of Massachusetts wouldn’t have had to reach a settlement with four of the parties largely responsible for the contamination of New Bedford Harbor, which has some of highest concentrations of PCBs in a Superfund marine environment.

Society wouldn’t still be paying for the health impacts of lead poisoning. In the early 1920s, the dangers of leaded gasoline were already known, but major oil companies were allowed to use the technology anyway. Five decades later, only after environmental hazards became overwhelmingly apparent, the EPA announced a scheduled phase-out.

DuPont made a huge profit selling lead paint before it was eventually banned, and the multinational has since been accused of misleading consumers about the dangers of lead-based paint. In 2010, DuPont was named a top-20 polluter, dumping 5.3 million pounds of toxic chemicals into waterways.

“Humans don’t always take very good care of natural resources,” Sara N. da Silva Quintal, restoration ecologist for the Buzzards Bay Coalition, said during a late-March forum held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum entitled “Restoring Rivers and Estuaries, Native Fish and Shellfish.”

She spoke specifically about the coalition's Acushnet River restoration project, and how, through dam removal, riverbank restoration and invasive plant management, the river's herring population has increased dramatically. She also detailed how a derelict lumber yard and abandoned industrial complex have been transformed into a 19-acre park that will open to the public this summer.

Evaluating the economic cost of regulation can be tricky, though, as there have been few studies that have examined the issue in depth after regulations have been imposed. Some economists have claimed that various regulations designed to protect the environment, such as the federal Clean Air Act, have resulted in far lower costs and job losses than initially feared.

Reams of research, however, show that environmental regulations reduce infant mortality, decrease hospitalizations and increase real-estate values.

Healthy ecosystems, and the biodiversity that thrives within them, protect water, soil and air quality, ensure food security and provide flood protection. The pressures of economic growth since the Industrial Revolution, however, have stressed the health of vital ecosystems and cost U.S. taxpayers plenty, in the form of Superfund cleanups, flood damage, and health-care costs associated with lead poisoning and rising asthma rates.

Southern New England, however, continues to view the economy and the environment as separate issues. In her fiscal 2016 budget announced in March, Gov. Raimondo said it was developed around three guiding principles: build, attract, innovate.

Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I., has some 12 acres of parking. The casino paved over more than 2 acres of a field at the edge of a wetland without town or state approval. No punishment was levied. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I., has some 12 acres of parking. The casino paved over more than 2 acres of a field at the edge of a wetland without town or state approval. No punishment was levied. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

On the take
Protection of the environment and economic development are largely viewed as competing aims, as if they are mutually exclusive and operate in a vacuum. Through that dull prism, it’s easy to see why economic growth has been upstaging environmental protection and public health for centuries.

Jesse Rye, co-executive director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island, calls this the “extractive economy.” “The take, take, taking of natural resources,” he said.

This parcel of land in the Quonset Business Park, clear-cut about four years ago, is still waiting to be developed. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

This parcel of land in the Quonset Business Park, clear-cut about four years ago, is still waiting to be developed. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

About a hundred acres of mostly undisturbed woodland in North Kingstown, R.I., was cut down in 2011 to make space for prospective business tenants in the Quonset Business Park.

This clear-cutting, including the leveling of hundreds of mature trees, is part of a master plan to make the business park more attractive to light industry and manufacturing.

Nearly four years later, the once-wooded area sits vacant, treeless.

The Roman Empire clear-cut forests for fuel and housing, which eventually forced it to build its cities to take advantage of passive solar energy. In fact, this pattern of woodland obliteration to fuel economic development left much of England, France and Germany barren of forest by the early 1600s.

The switch to coal and other fossil fuels began the pattern of profits over protection. Chemical processing helped advance economic growth, but it also negatively impacted public health.

Hydraulic fracturing and tar-sands oil are now helping to fuel economic growth, while their environmental and public-health impacts are largely ignored or dismissed. It’s an-all-to-familiar pattern: shareholders profit, the environment suffers, and the public pays.

Powering our way of life comes with consequences — public-health concerns, social injustices and environmental damages. But that doesn't mean we should frack first and let others, after those who profited from the damage walk away, deal with the fallout. It doesn't mean we should continue mountaintop-removal mining at the expense of vital waterways and public health, especially when other energy alternatives are available.

An energy portfolio that actually encourages and supports the use of renewables and a power grid that can better harness this energy would help lessen the impact of mankind’s voracious appetite for power. But we continue to allow those who profit from fossil fuels to have most of the power.

Despite significant scientific evidence about the threats posed by increased greenhouse-gas emissions and the impacts of a changing climate, such as sea-level rise, many business groups and lawmakers continue to clamor for the dismantling of laws designed to protect the environment and call for the neutering of the EPA and state regulatory agencies.

The energy industry fights to reclassify mine waste as “fill” so contaminated material can be legally dumped into rivers and streams. Developers regularly call for less restrictions on where they can build.

Driving these efforts is the claim that four-plus decades of environmental regulations have strangled the U.S. economy and undermined economic competitiveness. Countless sets of facts and figures, however, tell a different story. In fact, the political machine, special interests and the wealthy "job creators" doing most of the current complaining have gained plenty since Richard Nixon made protecting the environment a priority.

For example, average compensation for the chief executive officers of the top 350 U.S. firms was $15.2 million in 2013, up 2.8 percent since 2012 and up 21.7 percent since 2010, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

Also, according to EPI, from 1978 to 2013, CEO compensation, adjusted for inflation, increased 937 percent — more than double stock-market growth and substantially greater than the 10.2 percent growth in a typical worker’s compensation over the same 35 years.

In 1965, five years before Nixon created the EPA, the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio was 20 to 1, and by 1978 it was 29.9 to 1. In 2013, the ratio was 295.9 to 1, according to EPI.

Also, according to the nonpartisan think tank, the number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost is one, out of 435.

At the close of 1970, the year the EPA was created, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was 838.92. Today, that key indicator of economic growth has grown more than 20-fold despite increased measures to better protect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil that grows our food.

In the 1970s, the decade the EPA was created, the top 0.1 percent of the wealthiest Americans held 7 percent of the nation’s wealth. Today, nearly five decades after environmental protections were made a priority, the 100 wealthiest U.S. families have as much wealth as the 80 million families who make up the bottom 50 percent in wealth, according to a story in the March 29 Boston Sunday Globe.

In fact, since the United States began better protecting the environment and public health, largely through regulation, corporate profits have soared.

In a March 2014 Gallup Poll Social Series survey on the environment, Americans said the environment is a priority over economic growth by a 50-percent-to-41-percent margin. In the 30 years that Gallup has asked this question, Americans have almost always chosen the environment over economic growth as a priority.

It's time the health of the planet and its many interconnected inhabitants take precedence over greed and fabricated fear. But how do we deconstruct a broken, centuries-old economic model? By thinking differently and embracing change.

Southern New England’s wildlife populations, such as this great egret, generate millions annually in local revenue from birdwatchers and sportsmen. (Ed Hughes/for the Audubon Society of R.I.)

Southern New England’s wildlife populations, such as this great egret, generate millions annually in local revenue from birdwatchers and sportsmen. (Ed Hughes/for the Audubon Society of R.I.)

Sustainable approach
The escalating demand being placed on the planet’s natural resources by 7 billion and counting people — a million more are added every four and a half days — has made it imperative that we manage nature’s generosity better.

Sustainable economic development turns the model of short-term profits over long-term public and environmental health upside down. Protection of natural resources and human health are the priority, with economic development approved as long as it doesn’t degrade either of those preferences. If it does, the business and/or industry is substantially taxed or fined.

Healthy ecosystems are immensely valuable, because they are inextricably tied to human survival. Healthy habitats also provide recreation, tourism and business opportunities, such as bicycling, fishing, hiking, swimming, surfing, birding and boating.

Rhode Island’s wildlife populations generate about $130 million annually from sportsmen (hunting), birdwatchers and other wildlife observers. The director of the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), Janet Coit, told those who attended the Southern New England Recreational Fishing Symposium in late March that the recreational fishing industry alone brings Rhode Island $200 million in revenue annually.

"This industry is a real economic driver, and is growing its importance economically," Coit said. "We need to be innovative and smart when it comes to this ecosystem. We want our children and grandchildren to be able to go fishing in the future."

Southern New England's fisheries, however, are feeling the pressures of a changing climate, global overfishing, and pollution from stormwater runoff, wastewater discharges and the overuse of nitrogen-rich fertilizers.

Rhode Island’s lobster fishery could disappear by the end of the next decade, according to some projections. Overfishing alone doesn’t account for the local decline in winter flounder; warming waters also have played a big part.

So what is a protected environment worth? Many would likely argue that it’s priceless, but in reality that question is rarely given much thought. In the quest for economic growth, most accounting practices leave the environment shortchanged.

Property rights enable owners — and those who lease public land from state or federal government — to produce goods (subsidized crops, oil, natural gas) and services (cattle grazing) to sell, often for a considerable profit.

There are, however, few property rights for natural resources such as water and air, so they have been used — and often abused — for free as receptacles of the waste created by economic growth. And since there is no market for maintaining biodiversity, economic development decisions regarding, say, land use are unlikely to account for the considerable public health and environmental benefits that vibrant ecosystems provide.

Environmental regulations are typically designed to prevent, reduce or at least better manage abuses against the environment and public health.

The management of pollution and waste from economic development has improved significantly in the past century, thanks in large part to regulations that require compliance and spur innovation. A century of regulations also has improved working conditions and public health.

Gina McCarthy, the nation’s top environmental official, has said environmental protection is good for the economy and creates jobs. The EPA administrator has repeatedly dismissed the claim that environmental regulations restrain economic growth.

The Boston native and former commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection has cited stricter fuel-economy standards set in 2011 for auto manufacturers as an example, noting car makers responded by increasing miles-per-gallon averages, which lowered carbon emissions and made their products more attractive to consumers still dealing with the economic fallout of 2007-08.

McCarthy has cited statistics dating back to the early years of the EPA that demonstrate environmental regulations and economic development can be achieved simultaneously. Emissions of harmful air pollutants have dropped nearly 70 percent since 1970, according to McCarthy. In that time, national economic growth has exceeded 200 percent.

A vibrant environment supports a healthy economy. (David Smith/ecoRI News)

A vibrant environment supports a healthy economy. (David Smith/ecoRI News)

Local investment
This flipped-upside-down economic model would feature policies that call for sustainable practices, reduced energy use, the efficient use of resources and a fairer distribution of wealth, according to its advocates. They say a sustainable economy focuses on eradicating poverty, educational empowerment and environmental protection.

Four of southern New England’s greatest economic assets are Narragansett Bay, Cape Cod Bay, Buzzards Bay and Long Island Sound. Many industries, from fishing, both commercial and recreational, to tourism, would suffer greatly if these vital ecosystems were damaged.

Several estimates suggest that the total value of the natural resources of the Narragansett Bay watershed — about 60 percent of which is in Massachusetts —  exceeds several billion dollars annually, according to a 2003 University of Rhode Island study.

Some 12 million people visit Narragansett Bay annually to fish, swim, surf and sun. Many of those visitors also shop and dine locally. In the late 1990s, the Ocean State’s tourism industry was second only to health services in terms of total wages, and 30 percent of that tourism was associated with amenity-based uses of Narragansett Bay, according to a 2008 study funded by the EPA.

Narragansett Bay also is commercially important for the shellfish industry. An estimated 15 percent of Rhode Island’s total lobster landings are caught in the bay, according to that 2008 report. In addition, the state’s quahog fishery is contained mostly within Narragansett Bay, with an average value of about $7.5 million annually.

But the environmental degradation of Narragansett Bay caused by the pursuit of economic growth has lessened the economic value of this natural resource. For example, eelgrass beds are a critical habitat for bay scallops, and Narragansett Bay once supported a large bay scallop fishery. In 1880, more than 300,000 bushels of bay scallops were harvested from Narragansett Bay, a quantity that would be worth some $33 million today, according to the EPA study.

By 2003, however, bay scallop landings in Narragansett Bay were largely nonexistent. The loss of this fishery can be traced to the loss of eelgrass beds — wiped out by disease, pollution and coastal development. Recovery has been slow.

In fact, thanks in large part to the byproducts of economic growth, the Rhode Island commercial fishery has been forced to move offshore. With the exception of the quahog and small lobster fisheries, Narragansett Bay no longer supports a major commercial fishery.

Recreational fishing attracts some 300,000 anglers annually to the Ocean State and is a major part of the state’s tourism industry. The historical abuse of the bay’s watershed, though, now requires fish consumption advisories, which are issued based on the level of contaminants detected in fish tissue. PCB advisories have been in effect since the early 1990s; mercury advisories were first issued a decade later.

The natural resources within the Long Island Sound basin are worth billions. (Earth Economics)

The natural resources within the Long Island Sound basin are worth billions. (Earth Economics)

“From the far western end of Long Island Sound east to Narragansett Bay, twin scourges plague our region’s waters: bacterial pollution and nitrogen poisoning,” Curt Johnson, executive director of Save the Sound, said earlier this year when his organization and Providence-based Save The Bay submitted comments to the EPA regarding polluted stormwater runoff from Massachusetts. “The coastal waters where we swim, fish and boat provide huge environmental and economic benefits for our region, and we must join together to protect them.”

The natural capital provided annually by the Long Island Sound basin, which stretches to the northern tip of New Hampshire, is between $17 billion and $37 billion, according to a study released this year.

There are some 135 industries, such as shellfish farming, wind power and nature parks, that depend directly on the basin’s natural capital. The 84-page study entitled “The Trillion Dollar Asset: Economic Valuation of the Long Island Sound Basin” found that about $5.2 billion in direct wages and some 190,000 jobs depend on the natural resources of Long Island Sound and its basin.

Cape Cod Bay contributes a minimum of $1.5 billion a year to the region’s economy, according to a 2012 study. The tourism and fishing industries supported by the bay — designated as a state ocean sanctuary in 1970 — are dependent on good water quality and the protection of coastal and marine habitats.

In surveys of tourists in coastal areas, 65 percent identified clean water and clean beaches as the most important factors for an enjoyable vacation, according to the 52-page report.

At least 20 percent of visitors to Massachusetts visit Cape Cod and the Islands, the second-most visited destination after Boston, according to a 2011 report by the Cape Cod Commission. The report notes that the Cape’s myriad coastal ecosystems, especially its beaches and water quality, are the foundation of the region’s tourism industry.

In 2009 alone, domestic tourists generated about $65 million in local tax receipts for Barnstable and Plymouth counties, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

Besides protecting these four natural and cultural assets from the byproducts of economic development, environmental regulations also protect countless businesses and jobs in southern New England.

In fact, environmental protection is no less an industry than, say, the manufacturing of costume jewelry. That industry dominated the 25-block Jewelry District in Providence well into the 1980s, creating jobs — some 32,500 at its peak in 1976 — and also polluting the Providence River with heavy metals and toxins. Most of those jobs are long gone, and much of the pollution remains.

The wetlands, forests, open space and estuaries within the Narragansett Bay, Cape Cod Bay and Buzzards Bay watersheds and the Long Island Sound basin aren’t fleeting investments, and they don’t depreciate in value like costume jewelry and video games. Strategic and diversified investment in natural capital is a sound risk-management strategy against climatic, social and economic volatility, according to the authors of the Long Island Sound study.

To create a sustainable economy in southern New England will require better use of the region’s strengths — natural resources, aquaculture, intellectual capital, innovation and locally sourced food. It certainly isn’t about quick fixes, gambling on casinos, endless development and tax breaks for corporations that hide their profits in overseas tax havens.

Providence was named a top food city in 2012 by Travel + Leisure, and last year Boston was named one of the 10 best foodie cities by Livability.com. There are more than 50 aquaculture farms, with nearly 180 acres, in Rhode Island alone. In 2013, the value of Rhode Island aquaculture products for consumption was $4.2 million, an increase of 49 percent from the previous year, according to a Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) study.

A sustainable economy invests in maintaining its existing stock of natural and human-built capital — not, in say, building a second minor-league baseball stadium, complete with plenty of parking, that will create more stormwater runoff within the Narragansett Bay watershed. Stormwater runoff is the largest single source of pollution of U.S. bays and freshwater ecosystems.

The Compost Plant, a Providence-based business created by Leo Pollock, left, and Nat Harris, picks up commercial food scrap from restaurants and schools. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

The Compost Plant, a Providence-based business created by Leo Pollock, left, and Nat Harris, picks up commercial food scrap from restaurants and schools. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Building a better economy
Building a sustainable economy for southern New England means accounting for climate-change impacts, investing in communities, and building local partnerships and regional networks.

It means making better use of the waterfronts in Fall River, New Bedford and Providence. It means enforcing environmental regulations, and not allowing, for example, a Providence scrap-metals recycler, which began operating without proper permits in 2009, to pollute upper Narragansett Bay for five years. The mess this illegal operation could potentially leave behind could cost taxpayers millions to clean.

It means making the funding of public transportation a priority. It means better maintaining public infrastructure. It means embracing ideas that better connect the region’s many strengths, such as local food, the technology sector and the outdoors.

In fact, there are those who believe a more vibrant local food scene would make the region more attractive to business professionals, students and tourists.

“People want a high quality of life and food is s big part of that,” said Leo Pollock, network coordinator for the Rhode Island Food Policy Council. “We already have a strong food culture here, and there is momentum to build on.”

The Providence resident also said jobs associated with greater production and distribution of local food could be the region’s new “manufacturing” workforce.

“There’s a lot of high-paying tech and medical jobs here, and they are important, but local food could help support low- to middle-wage jobs — the base Rhode Island lost when manufacturing left,” Pollock said. “That’s still an important job base.”

In the past few years, Wholesome Wave, a Bridgeport, Conn.-based organization, has helped strengthen this sector by coordinating some $4 million in investment in local food infrastructure.

The organization worked with Farm Fresh Rhode Island to secure a $100,000 loan with a philanthropic guaranty in order to expand cooler space and support working capital. With this additional space and money, Farm Fresh has increased sales of local and regional foods, supporting farmer incomes and spurring local job creation.

Wholesome Wave helped Red’s Best, a Massachusetts-based “fish hub” that buys catch from small New England boats, secure and structure a multimillion-dollar line of credit that allowed the business to expand its capacity, serve new markets and create new jobs.

The organization also worked with the Dorchester Bay Development Corporation to secure public-private financing for redeveloping an old factory into a food enterprise hub. The building is being converted into a commercial kitchen and food-processing facility managed by Crop Circle Kitchen, a nonprofit that provides business development services and food-safe rental space to Boston-based food businesses.

Lisa Raiola, the founder and visionary behind Rhode Island’s new culinary incubator, Hope & Main, has offered the idea using some of Providence’s reclaimed I-195 land to build a vertical farm.

“It would be model for all of New England,” she has said. “It would be an urban living space with agriculture. It would attract funding and tourism. Everyone would see it from the highway — a living-learning experiment that could be the future of local food.”

David Dadekian, founder of EatDrink RI and the recipient of a $300,000 Rhode Island Foundation Innovation Fellowship last year, wants to create a year-round marketplace in Providence that would be similar to Quincy Market in Boston, Pike Place Market in Seattle or Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.

Simply encouraging and supporting the use of what already exists — like using the region’s rooftops to grow more food, house aquaponic systems and capture more rays — would make southern New England’s economy more sustainable.

“There’s this mindset that we have to attract new things,” said Rye of Farm Fresh. “Why can’t we focus on what we have here and make that stronger?"


 

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."
the late Edward Abbey, author and essayist


 
 
 

"Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans."
the late Jacques Cousteau


 
 
 

"We're captives of a business model that has passed its useful limits. (But) until there's a fundamental change in the underlying rules set, the model will keep yielding the same output."
George Ure, author