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Opinion Articles:

Environmental Stewardship Vs. Economic Development

Petroleum: Once Blessing, Now Curse


  Doubling Co-Generation A Productive Idea

Walter McGuireBy Walter McGuire
EcoIQ Magazine Contributing Editor

This article's title implies a dispute that is more rhetorical than real. In the long term, the economy and the environment are inextricably linked. Today's economy depends heavily on the availability and cost of resources. Yet, we have built an economy that values resource consumption rather than stewardship. We live in a finite ecosystem, but we operate as though our resources were infinite. And we believe science will find a substitute when we run out.

There is another distinction -- made clearly by the World Bank -- which points out that we have consistently failed to recognize the difference between growth and development:

  "...To grow means to increase in size by the assimilation or accretion of materials. To develop means to expand or realize the potentialities of; to bring to a fuller, greater, or better state Our planet develops over time without growing. Our economy, must eventually adapt to a similar pattern of development."

As we move into the new millennium, we are at a threshold in the way we view our environment and deal with environmental policy. The time has come to recognize that economic prosperity and environmental prosperity are two sides of the same coin.

Earth Day 1970 marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement -- we started to deal with urban issues, including clean water and air, traffic congestion, solid and toxic wastes. Government's solution was "command and control" regulation and enforcement with business as its target. We made great strides, but government became a victim of its own rhetoric. The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and other grandly named laws gave the false impression that we had solved the problems.

"Grandly named laws gave the false impression that we had solved the problems."

We came to believe that the answers would be found at the federal level instead of asking the public to take responsibility.

Business since the 1970s has generally been reactive and become a victim of its own rhetoric. Money spent on environmental programs has been seen as a "cost" to be avoided. Environmental mandates or bad press stories have been blamed on environmental activists.

And while membership in environmental organizations has soared, they too have been victims of their own rhetoric. The 30/60 rule forced environmentalists and politicians to reduce environmental issues to the time they were allotted on TV: 30 to 60 seconds. Environmental groups built their budgets through direct mail, the success of which depended upon raising the urgency of a specific issue and raising the public's expectations about what could be done with their money.

As we move into the new millennium, local government is best suited to lead the way. The environmental problems that have been regulated by state and federal governments still persist and worsen, resulting in a sense of paralysis. These problems need to be defined in bite-sized chunks, so people can be moved to take action.

Businesses have begun to realize that resource limitations cause uncertainty and expense; that changing environmental regulations make smart business planning difficult; and that environmental problems threaten their success. All their lobbying and PR only changes the venue of the problem from the legislature to the courts; or, in worst case situations, to direct action by the public ranging from boycotts to ballot initiatives.

"It is becoming apparent that business must regain control of its operations through aggressive environmental programs."

It is becoming apparent that business must regain control of its operations through aggressive environmental programs.

As their memberships flatten out, environmental organizations are realizing that they have disenfranchised their members by focusing on fundraising, media, and lobbying in distant capitols. They realize that even the most urgent appeals are losing their strength as people become skeptical; and that their strength ultimately lies in working with local members on a local environmental agenda.

In the year 2000, our challenge will be to define a clear vision and the practical instruments and incentives that allow us all to act on behalf of our common future. The answer lies in building sustainable communities. The sustainability movement directs attention to systems rather than single issues; to systems changes (pollution prevention and source reduction) rather than tailpipe solutions. Sustainability focuses on development versus growth, seeking partnerships between government, business, and the public. Sustainability promotes economic well-being, social justice and environmental quality.

We will not succeed unless people truly believe and act on the phrase "think globally, act locally." Local government must be on the frontline, because that is where the rubber hits the road. It is at the local level that government delivers most of its services -- is responsible for solid and liquid waste, water and energy, land use planning, building and maintaining infrastructure, and so on.

Whether cities welcome this increasing challenge or not, they will be forced to act. Federal and state mandates will increase local government's share of public sector environmental protection costs to an estimated 87 percent this year. A more important reason for cities to take the lead is that the new strategies needed to build sustainable cities require local programs.

It will be the changed consumption patterns of consumers that will spell the difference between success and failure. As with any addiction, the first step toward recovery is to admit that we have a problem -- that we have a system which fosters waste and poor management of resources. The next step is to do something about it.

There is much local government can do. The Global Cities Project has identified hundreds of local programs in the United States. Take water conservation. In 35 states, groundwater is being pumped out faster than nature can replenish it. Water conservation saves cities money by conserving energy and reducing capital and operating costs. It also protects the environment by reducing groundwater depletion and pollution, as well as by saving wildlife. To conserve water, the city of Denver put water meters on homes, saving an estimated 10,000 acre-feet per year. By using a computerized leak detection system, San Francisco cut water losses from 3 to 7 percent. Tucson and San Diego have shifted rate structures and San Jose has installed low-flow showerheads and toilets. The list goes on. There is much that must be done, and cities have been moved to the front line. How they handle it will determine the future environment for their citizens and their future economic welfare as well.

 

"When the EPA was created, economists who had studied the matter argued almost unanimously that the most efficient way to reduce pollution was to assess an effluent charge on polluters. The EPA ignored this advice and instead sued polluters in court."

- James Q. Wilson

It has been the "tailpipe" strategy that has framed environmental issues as "us" versus "them," polarizing the environment vs. the economy. Environmental standards, regulations, and enforcement are necessary. They create a level playing field upon which a capitalistic economy operates. Further, if we are to harness the private sector to solve environmental problems, a way must be found to make all of us, producers and consumers alike, face up to the true costs of our decisions. We must build the cost imposed on society by the polluter or resource user into the cost of the product.

Finally, in spite of all efforts to find economic reasons to justify environmental behavior, there will still be environmental "costs." It is impossible to put an economic value on all the many wonders of our environment. Besides, economists generally have a hard time accounting for the next generation. There will always be a need to recall the words of Walter Lippmann, "Public service is the spirit that makes old men plant trees that they will never sit under."


Walter McGuire is President of The Environmental Policy Center and director of The Global Cities Project, a leading educational and research organization promoting sustainable communities. He advanced presidential trips for the Carter White House, and he served as the legislative advocate for the California Governor's Office in the early 1980s. McGuire was the national field director for Earth Day 1990, the largest environmental event in United States history.


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