Balancing Economic Growth and Environmental Protection

By Sawhill, John C. | Management Quarterly, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Balancing Economic Growth and Environmental Protection


Sawhill, John C., Management Quarterly


I'm glad to be here today and to see so many old friends and colleagues involved in rural electrification. I'm also pleased that you chose to invite an environmentalist to address your conference, because more and more, environmental questions are going to become central to your work. Then again, maybe you invited me just because I'm an old energy guy and you figured I'd show up in a nice suit and wouldn't say anything too incendiary.

Well, you have nothing to fear. As you can see, I'm wearing a suit. And this morning I'm not going to spike any trees, pour sand in the gas tank of a bulldozer, or file any frivolous lawsuits. That's not The Nature Conservancy's style, and it's certainly not my style. Instead, I'm going to speak about what you asked me to: the balance between preserving the environment and promoting economic development.

Actually, I find this phrase a little ironic. It's like balancing a pound of feathers with a pound of lead--they sure look different, but they both weigh a pound. And that's the way I see the environment and the economy. They're so dependent on each other that you can't really separate them. To be sure, a lot of people have a hard time accepting this, in both the environmental and business communities. The idea that the economy and the environment are fundamentally interrelated goes against a whole host of preconceptions and orthodoxies. You might as well try convincing a member of the John Birch Society that Karl Marx had all the answers.

Well, my goal here this morning is to shatter any preconceptions that you might have about having to somehow "choose" between preserving the environment and promoting economic development. I'll start with an analysis of the linkages between the economy and environment. Then I want to discuss sustainable economic development. This phrase has become one of the chief buzzwords in the conservation vocabulary, and I want to talk about what it means and why it's important. I'll finish up with a look at how these issues of sustainable development play closer to home, and in particular how they relate to rural economic development here in the United States.

Let me start by exploring the connections between the economy and the environment, and why I'm so uncomfortable when people talk about choosing between them. The fact is, you can't view the environment as if it were some separate thing, an entity that exists independent of human activity. The environment undergirds everything we do. It provides our food, water, air, and natural resources--the essentials of life. It's our global life support system. And the more we destroy the environment, the less able it is to support us.

Remember the old television ad with the punchline, "you can't fool Mother Nature"'? Well, I think the copywriters got it wrong. The punchline should have been, "you can't fool with Mother Nature." Because when you do fool with Mother Nature, especially when you overexploit a natural resource, it's all too easy to set off a chain of unintended and often disastrous consequences.

Let me give you a case in point. It concerns the Pacific sea otter, which lives off the California coast. Now, otters are like poster children for the environmental movement. They're cute and cuddly and a guaranteed revenue generator for the direct mail. They're doing pretty well these days, but less than one hundred years ago otters were in deep, serious trouble.

Around the turn of the century, otters were hunted to the brink of extinction for their pelts. In fact, there were only about 1,000 of them left when they were protected from hunting. But as the otter population declined, people began to notice some curious changes in the Pacific coastal ecosystem. Populations of eagles, harbor seals, and fish began to decline dramatically as well. The fishing industry went into a tailspin.

So what happened? The answer lies in the rich beds of kelp that grow off the coast. …

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