A positive vision for Maine: A knowledge-based adaptation economy

Presently the governor of Maine has proposed a tax on nonprofits. This would severely impact the private colleges and universities in the state.  Per my argument below, this is coming at a time when re-investment in higher education is absolutely essential if we are to develop the adaptive capacity to respond to climate change.  Moreover, the state’s public institutions that comprise the University of Maine system are presently in the process of financial meltdown.  The U Maine system requires broad scale systematic foundational restructuring if it is to survive.  
The blog below provides a plan for a better future for Maine.  Leaders in the state are not talking about the kind of foundational change that is needed, and this is my attempt to at least start the conversation.  A version of this will appear in the Maine press in the near future.  A later installment will detail exactly how a knowledge economy will make money for Maine
This morning a new report from the U Maine Climate Institute was released.   This report confirms that natural resources in Maine are under imminent threat from climate change.

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A slow motion train wreck is underway in Maine. This collision will play out over the next few decades and leave the state with an increasingly damaged economy and devastated natural resources. An economy with fewer and fewer young workers is running headlong into the effects of climate change on our natural resources.

I moved to Maine in July 2011, and I have yet to find a positive vision for the state that addresses both overarching forces. None of the bills presently under consideration by the state legislature are sufficiently comprehensive to derail this progressing disaster. Additional federal, state, county, and municipal money will not change the outcome without a strategic plan that addresses the underlying issues in our demographics and our management of the environment.

The upside-down population of Maine will not change until we give young Maine residents a reason to stay and young families from away a reason to come. Mainers must change traditional attitudes about in-migration and welcome new blood with open arms. Without this new blood, Maine will continue to falter as its population ages.

This would be bad enough without the added insult to Maine’s natural resources driven by climate change. As observed by many economists, climate change is the greatest market failure in history. Agriculture, forestry, wildlife, fresh-water and marine resources will change dramatically under the influence of climate change. We must anticipate and manage these changes.  Maine’s climate ranks seventh among the states with respect to speed of change since 1970.

Let’s be clear: Maine is natural resources. Natural resources, including our agricultural lands, are all that we have that is tangible and much of the state’s cash flow is dependent on them. Effective management requires that even as we reduce our carbon emission we proactively adapt to climate change that is underway and speeding up. Note that proactive adaptation is far, far less expensive than reactive adaptation.

Investing in adaptation can prevent the train wreck, and also reinvigorate Maine’s economy, bringing high paying jobs for young people back to the state. We must create a knowledge economy focused on the adaptive management of Maine’s natural resources.

A knowledge economy is one in which knowledge-intensive activities accelerate the pace of desired outcomes. Much of the world economy is transitioning to a knowledge basis, and adaptation is one such knowledge-intensive activity. Maine is well provisioned to become a leading source of knowledge and skills for adapting natural resources to climate change.

This know-how will be in high demand throughout the northern hemisphere wherever natural resources are being transformed by climate change. As Maine innovates and develops adaptive strategies, we should market this knowledge. As we save ourselves, Maine could become a destination for those who want to understand the transformation and management of these crucial resources.

Foundational to this are the good bones of Maine’s higher education and research institutions, which are necessary for the development of a knowledge economy. To be sure, the University of Maine system presently requires fundamental structural overhaul if it is to avoid financial meltdown. Private elite colleges, like Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby, have done much to promote the construction of a knowledge economy, and we should strongly encourage them to continue to be engaged with their home state.

Maine’s higher education assets are manifold considerably beyond these visible institutions. Maine is home to several leading edge institutions focused on sustainability including College of the Atlantic, Husson University, Maine College of Art, Saint Joseph’s College, Thomas College, and Unity College. Similarly, the state supports a range of excellent community colleges such as Kennebec Valley Community College, which have programs that can strongly support a knowledge economy.

The evidence suggests that the future economy of the world will be based in large measure on knowledge and innovation. With its unique mix of manageable natural resources including agriculture, Maine has a grand opportunity to reinvent itself as a center for climate adaptation and sustainable natural resource management.

This is not a quick fix. We must build the cultural and institutional capacity for adaptive management that will form the foundation of Maine’s economy for the future. Failure to proactively address our demographic and climate change challenges is tantamount to turning our backs of the future wellbeing of Maine and its citizens. Now is the time for far reaching vision and fundamental change that will serve Maine through the middle of this century and beyond.

Funding the initial phases of a knowledge-based adaptation economy will require creative financing. One means of doing so is to vigorously participate in the development of carbon markets. Similarly, some have suggested a fee-and-dividend approach that employs a fee placed on carbon emissions resulting in revenues that would be plowed back into the economy.

Building a viable future for Maine will require investment, research, and development, all of which will contribute to innovation and a healthy economy. At this crucial moment in our history, adaptive management of our natural resources points the way to a vital future for the people and the ecologies of Maine.

Citizen from away and resident of Maine Stephen Mulkey, PhD, is president of Unity College, America’s Environmental College, in Unity.