By Steve Weber
Poverty sucks! It literally diminishes our ability to be ourselves, to do the right thing. It compromises opportunities for education; for a healthy diet; for medical care; for employment; even for longevity. This should come as no surprise to us Mainers. At $55,602, our beloved state of Maine ranks 36th in per-capita income. One of the consequences of our relative poverty is that we are more easily taken advantage of, more easily exploited.
Over 40 years ago, when I was an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Maine, a student of mine asked if I would join a master’s committee to examine his thesis in agricultural economics. (What harm could a philosopher do?) As is so often the case in life, my intent to be helpful to someone else turned into an educational opportunity for me.
The student had written a full-of-insights thesis comparing Maine’s economy with that of a Third World nation. Ours is largely an exploitive economy; an economy that extracts raw resources. We provide very little, job-producing “value added.” Instead, that potential is shipped elsewhere while we are left with depleted forests and seas. The latest figures show that Maine ranks 49th among the states in value-added per worker, trailing the U.S. average by 24 percent.
Why would we let this happen? Because we are poor and desperate for any jobs we can get. Poverty forces us to take the low-percentage, “bird-in-hand” jobs rather than bide our time for better opportunities. While wealthier states can afford to resist the temptation of cheap exploitive jobs, we are consistently suckered into them. Why despoil the forests of Massachusetts or Connecticut if we can trash Maine instead?
It is not just that we allow ourselves to be exploited by other states; foreign countries are getting in on the trashing of Maine. A case in point: Norway ranks third internationally with a per-capita income of $82,500, (48 percent higher than Maine’s). Its wealth lets it take better care of its citizens, (free medical care, free higher education, paid parental leave, etc.) which, in a “virtuous circle,” produces more wealth. Norway’s wealth also allows its citizens to take better care of their environment (and hence reap long-term benefits).
This explains how it is that a Norwegian business seeks to export its pollution to Maine in the form of an ocean-based, industrial-scale fish farm at the heart of our Frenchman Bay. Norway regulates fish farms far more rigorously than we do. Perhaps that is because it values its beautiful coastline more than we value ours. But a more likely explanation is our poverty and the lack of regulation it spawns. This Norwegian company proposes to exploit our clean, clear waters and Maine’s more lenient regulations. In Norway, a fish farm is allowed to produce up to 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of fish per year; in Maine we have no such limitation. The 100-acre, floating factory (complete with a network of floating docks and two large barges moored near its pens) that these Norwegian investors propose will produce up to 66 million pounds of fish per year. Is that a lot? Yes. It would be the equivalent of 13,200 of the maximum-sized fish farms allowed by Norwegian regulations. No wonder these Norwegian investors want to take advantage of us.
All those years ago, when my student argued for a “value-added” economy, I thought to myself: Maine does have a value-added economy. It is tourism, where most of the jobs stay in state, where people come here, rather than sucking resources out. Why do they come? Primarily to enjoy our clean, beautiful environment. Over 2 million people come to visit Acadia National Park (on whose doorstep these Norwegian investors propose to anchor this atrocity) every year. This Norwegian project not only exploits our poverty but damages our most valuable resources, both economically and aesthetically.
Some pleasures are open to us all regardless of income: for example, enjoying the view of Frenchman Bay from the top of Cadillac Mountain. Close your eyes; imagine that view you know so well: beautiful islands floating in a pristine bay. Now imagine looking out from the top of Cadillac to see 100 acres of fish pens. To put that in perspective, Bald Porcupine Island, which sits so beautifully in Frenchman Bay, is 32 acres; Burnt Porcupine Island is 40 acres; Sheep Porcupine is 22. Add them up: together they are less than the 100 acres this Norwegian fish farm envisions claiming for itself.
I began this essay with the cliché “Poverty sucks.” I did not, however, say what it sucks.
Poverty sucks human and natural potential. It condemns us to be less than we can be; to compromise our future; to be timid in our defense of our self and of Maine; to grasp at the (always false) promises of “hundreds of new jobs,” while abandoning the (actual) hundreds of lobstermen, clammers, wormers, scallopers, etc. who depend on Frenchman Bay for their subsistence — not to mention the thousands of hoteliers, restauranters, guides who depend on Acadia National Park. Now our poverty even threatens to suck away that beautiful view of an unsullied Frenchman Bay.
Poverty wears various faces. There is a proud poverty that works hard and waits for a break. There is an ugly poverty that tries to “get mine” at the expense of others. But then there is a stupid poverty that sells itself and its future to the lowest bidder.
We might be poor, but we do not have to be stupid.
Steve Weber is a retired university president living in Hancock.