Economists are social scientists who specialise in Economics, which they may combine with Ecology, Environmental Sciences or Agricultural Sciences, to specialise as natural resource, agricultural and/or environmental economists. This is a scarce skill and this career is in high demand.
Resource and environmental economists attribute value (often in rands and cents) to natural resources such as land, freshwater, forests, grasslands, marine resources, agricultural produce and air.
For instance, the ‘Working for Water Programme’ asked resource economists to calculate the benefits of clearing thirsty alien invasive trees, thereby making more of South Africa’s scarce water resources available for use in our towns and cities.
A resource economist may, for example, do a cost benefit analysis for a local authority to calculate whether the municipality would increase their income from tourism if they were to spend money on cleaning up a polluted river mouth or beach front.
Economists who specialise in trade and employment recently compared the number of jobs that could be created through greening South Africa’s economy by implementing renewable energy projects, with those jobs that would be created in the restoration and protection of ecosystems such as wetlands.
Normal office hours, interesting problems, pleasant conditions and working with people who have similar interests make this profession generally rewarding. Depending on the particular field entered, there is an enormous amount of data to assimilate, and market research facts and figures to digest. In order to make accurate assessments of problem areas, travelling might be necessary in some cases to see what could be done to improve matters.
A particularly satisfying aspect is that this is a relatively new field, therefore many of the studies undertaken by resource and environmental economists are of a ground-breaking nature. Innovative new methods to quantify ecosystem benefits need to be developed. However, in a new field, there are usually not enough projects focused specifically on natural resources and the environment only. Natural resource economists may, at times, find themselves being involved in more general socio-economic studies, and therefore a more holistic, systems perspective is often valued in the profession.