Electronic Green Journal, 1(7), Article 28 (1997)
Review: Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies: the search for a
value of place.
By Thomas Michael Power
Reviewed by R. James Tobin
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Power, Thomas Michael. Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies: the
search for a value of place. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996.
304pp. cloth US $29.95 ISBN: 1-55963-368-9. Acid-free paper.
"Folk economics" would have us believe those extractive industries such
as logging, mining or agriculture are the basis of economic well being for
the localities in which they are practiced. All other occupations are
dependent on the continuance and prosperity of these basic industries.
On the basis of such assumptions, political objections to restricting or
regulating the practice of extractive industries have had considerable
persuasive power. Thomas Michael Power, Professor and Chair of the
Department of Economics at the University of Montana in Missoula,
shows that these claims or assumptions are greatly exaggerated and
based more on traditional myth than on careful and objective economic
Power presents evidence showing that local economic well being does
not necessarily diminish when basic extractive industries decline, fail or
depart, because other industries may have created prosperity on their
own. Agriculture has been shrinking as a segment of the total American
economy for nearly two centuries. At the same time, the American
economy has grown enormously. Many industries have failed, but there
are few ghost towns in America. Similarly, the economic, and general,
well being of some locales has actually improved with the shutdown of
mining operations. "Mining contributes too little to local economic
development to justify its scarring local environments while disrupting
local communities" (129).
In addition to logging, mining and agriculture, Power also examines the
tourism industry. He does not recommend big tourism, as it can disrupt
a traditional way of life and result in as much overdevelopment as other
industries. However, when kept under control, tourism's economic
benefits should not be discounted. "Backpacking and wildlife may well
hold more economic value than a gold mine" (120).
With respect to logging, Power notes that although woodworking jobs
are relatively high paying, a benefit "touted in justifying health, safety,
and environmental problems associated with the industry...the more
important the wood products industry is as a source of income in a
county [in Oregon or Montana], the lower the average income is..."
(142). In other words, there is no spillover effect benefiting other
workers in timber industry locales.
Another economic myth addressed in Lost Landscapes and Failed
Economies: the search for a value of place is that service jobs, as
compared with jobs in extractive industries, are low, poverty level
employment. Power shows that service industry employment is typically
quite rewarding economically, except for unskilled labor. Although he
recognizes the plight of the unskilled, Power counters recommendations
for more low-skilled work with the observation that it is jobs requiring
skill that produce prosperity.
People move to certain locales because of scenic and other amenities,
and people are willing to work for lower wages then they would accept in
undesirable locations with few amenities. In fact, highly paid workers
frequently commute in and out of such locations (such as mining sites),
spending most of their income elsewhere, and thus failing to contribute
to the economic well being of these locales while destroying scenic
amenities. Some communities bring this sort of thing on themselves
without thinking the matter through. Choice of locale for living and
working is a major theme of Power's book.
Power is not sentimental about traditional, though vanishing, ways of
making a living, such as logging, or even agriculture. He feels that we
need to look forward and not back, because economic realities change
whether we want them to or not, and because attachment to old ways
may be detrimental both to economic prosperity and the well being of
the natural environment. He has some well-deserved negative things to
say about the Forest Service, in both environmental and economic
terms. Misguided agricultural policies have resulted in water-scarcity and
overdevelopment of dams. Shortsighted poisoning of predators of sheep
not only put poison into the environment but keep down the price of
overabundant sheep, a practice contrary to the economic interests of the
Power's book displays a great deal of sheer good sense and rationality in
service of the environment. He offers economics on behalf of
environmental concerns, not in opposition to them. Although Power
writes as a professional economist, using charts, graphs and tables to
illustrate his empirical findings, he writes with a minimum of technical
jargon, and in a style accessible to the lay reader, and he does so
convincingly. It would be difficult to overestimate the value and
importance of this book. It deserves the widest possible readership.
R. James Tobin <RJT@GML.LIB.UWM.EDU> is Collection Management
Librarian at the Golda Meir Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,