We live with conflicting messages about how to consider time. Live for the moment sounds great on Friday night, but as an investment plan, it has its shortcomings. On the other side, working for retirement until the day we die is clearly not the goal for most of us.
When it comes to decisions about the potential effects of gas and oil development, public-land management, mining proposals or climate change, the role of time becomes even more confusing.
Corporations typically use net present value as a guide. For our purposes, net present value balances current expenditures of mitigating future cost, or harm, against the future cost of dealing with the harm when it is manifested.
A dollar spent today to prevent pollution that will not appear for 20 years must be measured against the dollars spent in 20 years to deal with the contamination. By that time, the dollar not spent today may have been invested and earned 10 or 20 more, thus, a dollar today is worth less than the dollar tomorrow.
It is a classic put off until tomorrow argument. And if looked at from only a bookkeepers perspective, its a reasonable one.
Net present value is clearly a useful guide for investing. Whether it is useful when making decisions that may affect the ability of people in the future (including us) to prosper in a healthy environment is another question altogether.
Some local examples of where the issue is less than academic are:
The mines of the upper Animas River produced great wealth for the owners at the time, but now, and for the last 20 years, we have been wrestling to come up with affordable solutions to deal with the pollution.
The coal mines and power plants in northwest New Mexico have dumped millions of tons of ash, containing many toxins that will leach for centuries, into unlined pits.
The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are currently planning on allowing gas wells right up against the Fruitland outcrop, a practice that has resulted in coal fires, methane in water wells and homes and vegetative dead zones. Any harm may not show for decades.
Shale oil and gas development (fracking) is coming to our area in full force. What is the proper response?
One of the issues, whether it is how hard to play Friday night, or how to deal with the waste from burning coal, is that we never precisely know the consequences of our actions at the time we act. Should we be optimists or be cautious? How should we, as a society, or a government, make these decisions?
I believe it comes down to a responsibility to leave things as good or better than we found them. The definition of better can be debated (democracy is a good thing).
I hope that many would agree that unfunded huge pollution costs, trickling poison into our waters or leaving a planet with larger storms and less arable land are not legacies we want to leave our children and future generations.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.