Changing the Paradigm

By Brown, Peggy Ann | American Forests, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Changing the Paradigm


Brown, Peggy Ann, American Forests


Historical trends and the search for environmental and economic interdependence.

Eco-urbanism. Smart Growth. Sustainability. Natural capitalism. Buzz words for 21st century environmental action, these labels elicit avid support, scornful opposition, or mere indifference, depending on the speaker and audience.

What they share, however, is a call to action that reflects a growing sentiment that we've fallen short of the legislative thrust initiated by Rachel Carson's 1962 Silent Spring and bureaucratized by the Environmental Protection Agency. As Wallace Stegner so eloquently wrote in 1990 of environmentalism's slow progress, "We are still in transition from the notion of Man as master of Earth to the notion of Man as part of it."

The United Nations' 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment offered a starker view: "The bottom line. . . is that human actions are depleting Earth's natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted."

Continuing challenges-from reducing the loss of biodiversity to reversing global warming-signal a stagnation in the legislative/litigious efforts of the last 35 years. As many of today's environmental "isms" acknowledge, perpetuating the us/them dichotomy of environmentalists versus developers has not been successful.

Says Gary Moll, senior VP for AMERICAN FORESTS' urban forestry center, "The debate can no longer be between protect or develop but must be about how communities can achieve both a healthy ecosystem and economic integrity."

CHANGING PARADIGM

Over the past decade, articulate champions of environmental/economic interdependency have begun to describe ways to analyze and address ecological and economic concerns in tandem. In Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, for example, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins outline how valuing natural capital-"the natural resources and ecosystem services that make possible all economic activity"-can build a new economy in which businesses succeed while solving environmental problems.

Spencer Beebe and Ecotrust, a Seattle nonprofit, add a third "e"-equity-to the ecology/economy synthesis, creating a "triple bottom line" for analyzing and creating community solutions. And as the principles of sustainability have gained credibility among architects and other professionals, educators and groups such as Second Nature have begun advocating their inclusion in postsecondary education across disciplines.

REGIONAL AWARENESS

Michael Gallis, a keynote speaker at AMERICAN FORESTS' 2005 National Conference on Urban Ecosystems, posits the environment as a regional system, on par with transportation, health, and education systems as an essential component in establishing an area's economic security. Principal of Michael Gallis & Associates, the architect and city planner has applied this approach in developing strategic plans in central Florida, western Michigan, and Charlotte, North Carolina.

In Florida, Gallis is helping seven counties work together on a regional plan that acknowledges their interdependence. By collecting and analyzing region-wide information on 13 systems, including history, environment, tourism, and the economy, the counties have learned how the area's economic and environmental characteristics can be leveraged both locally and globally. "Too often the economic community views environmentalists as getting in the way of its goals," says Gallis, "and the environmental movement has increasingly allowed itself to become marginalized and pushed to the side.

"It's not just a question of protecting the environment but of weaving it into the fabric of a community in an effective way. By showing its function as a system, people can understand what happens if it collapses, in much the same way they understand what happens if you overexploit a transportation or education system. …

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