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Why We Need to Protect the Soul of South Florida

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The Everglades are the economical and ecological soul of South Florida. Our lives, our health, well being and economic prosperity are all linked to restored and functioning Everglades's ecosystems. Everglades's ecosystems directly support fishery, recreational and tourism industries as well as supplying water and flood control for agriculture, businesses and residents. Healthy Everglades's ecosystems will make South Florida more resilient to adverse effects of sea level rise such as salt water intrusion into our drinking water aquifer. We cannot engineer a better solution, even if we could pay for it. Protect our environment and our economy, restore the Everglades. It simply makes good business sense to do so.

Both economics and ecology come from the Greek work "oikos" or house. Economics literally means the rules of the house and ecology the study of the house. In current use, economics deals with finances and business -- money, while ecology focuses on explaining why plants and animals live where they do -- nature. It has always seemed to me that there was a natural relationship between economics and ecology, yet the reality is that today they are usually set against each other. That is you can have economic prosperity, but only at the expense of a healthy environment -- the economics vs. ecology dichotomy.

This is not only a false dichotomy, but a potentially dangerous situation to have. Current events to weaken almost all of the environmental laws in the U.S. should sound a warning bell. Economic prosperity and sustainability will depend on a healthy environment, on clean air, clean water and biological diversity. The economy vs. environment dichotomy does come into play when few stand to make a lot of money at the expense of many by destroying a natural resource (water pollution and air pollution are examples). This is economic gain for a few vs. economic (and health) losses for many, all done at the expense of the environment.

The four most important pieces of environmental legislation in the United States, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act were not passed to stifle economic development, but were passed in recognition of the simple business principle that prevention is cheaper than the cure. A series of post World War II environmental crisis led to these laws all being passed in the early 1970s and all were signed by the same U.S. Republican President, Richard Nixon. (I bet you were surprised.) The principle is simple: it is cheaper to keep rivers from catching fire, than to fix them after they do, it costs less keep a source of drinking water from being polluted than it does to try and clean it up (if it is even possible) after it has become contaminated. It costs less to properly dispose of wastes than spraying them on roads to control dust (remember Times Beach, Mo.?).

Although many of us don't realize it, those of us that live in South Florida live this lesson every day. Because we did not prevent the ecological destruction of Everglades's ecosystems we now have to cure or restore them. The combined cost of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the settlement of water quality lawsuits, and land acquisition is now in excess of $20 billion. And while prevention surely would have been cheaper than restoration, not restoring the Everglades and preventing further ecological loss will be a bigger economic mistake.