[GRRN] Boston Globe OpEd on growth and environmentalism

Long-EQE, Stephen (Stephen.Long@state.ma.us)
Tue, 20 Apr 1999 12:34:49 EDT

Thought this might foster some debate...

Bulldozing our way to a greener world?

By Robert Braile, Globe Correspondent, 04/18/99

Can America build its way to a better environment? The idea seems bizarre
on the face of it. Environmentalists have long argued that growth is
anathema to nature. Yet from ''eco-design'' to ''smart growth'' to
''industrial ecology,'' many environmentalists are rolling into this
week's Earth Day with a new look. Gone are the stop-growth days of the
'70s and slow-growth days of the '80s. Now they want to promote growth -
although in a green way.

''We've become more sophisticated since the first Earth Day in 1970,
when we thought all growth was bad,'' said Brock Evans, executive
director of the Endangered Species Coalition. ''Now we're saying, ` If
we can't beat 'em, join 'em.' If we're going to have growth, let's make
it good growth.''

Some in the movement say this is not true environmentalism, that growth
is growth, green or not, and we're already too big. Others say we can
grow our way out of our problems with development that is sensitive to
ecological, political, and economic concerns. But even they caution that
this new, pro-growth environmentalism is a risky business.

''We're at a key crossroads, as we seem to be all the time on
environmental issues, but seem especially to be on this one,'' said
Wendy Wendlandt, president of Earth Day 2000, a national group based in
Los Angeles. ''It's an emerging problem. Some neat things may happen.
But there's also a dangerous line we may cross.''

Growth is a given in this new environmentalism. Despite control efforts,
the world's population, now 6 billion, is expected to hit 11 billion by
2100, with consumption growing accordingly. Better to channel this
inevitable growth - such as with the 200 anti-sprawl ballot initiatives
that passed last November - than to waste time trying to stop it,
advocates of the new philosophy say.

And, they say, controlled, thoughtful growth might even help nature by
financing the huge costs of environmental solutions.

''The fact is that, if done right, economic growth is a boon to the
environment, not a force of destruction,'' said John DeVillars, New
England administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

''Too many environmentalists aren't satisfied with environmental
progress,'' he said. ''They want to extract some pain at the same time.
But that view is as destructive to the environment as the actions and
rhetoric of right-wing zealots.''

DeVillars is shepherding hundreds of millions of dollars in green
projects across New England, and has restructured his regional office to
support such work.

The idea of pro-growth environmentalism is taking root around the
country. ''Eco-designers'' are constructing strip malls that can
eventually be converted to homes. The EPA and others are backing ''smart
growth'' projects to redevelop contaminated ''brownfield'' sites in
cities while saving rural land, thus directing growth to developed
places. ''Industrial ecologists'' are showing companies how to take
ecological responsibility for the materials they use and products they

''We now understand that economic growth is often a powerful source of
environmental improvement, rather than always a source of environmental
concern,'' said Daniel Esty, director of the Yale Center for
Environmental Law and Policy.

But should growth be a given? ''The whole mindset behind this is a
continued step in the wrong direction,'' said Donella Meadows, who
authored the 1972 classic, ''The Limits to Growth,'' and teaches
environmental ethics at Dartmouth College.

''It reinforces the view that growth will occur anyway, that we can't
stop it, and that it's good. Calling it `smart growth' misses the point
- we're already too big. We must un-grow,'' said Meadows. ''The single
most important thing we who care about the environment can do is throw
ourselves at our deeply held, cultural assumption of growth, and stop
paying lip service to what was a bad idea in the first place.''

That assumption does run deep. Even in the 1970s, environmentalists
rarely opposed all growth; instead, they acknowledged its inevitability
with arguments about how it should be accommodated - favoring, say, mass
transit over new highways, and solar power over nuclear.

In the 1980s, the cost-benefit analyses and risk-assessments pushed by
the Reagan administration further favored growth. President Reagan also
undercut environmental laws and regulations that, to him, were skewed
toward preservation.

The Bush administration's ''jobs vs. environment'' rhetoric, during the
collapsed economy and environmental backlash of the early 1990s,
sharpened the cry for balance. It also deepened a fissure in the
movement between groups willing to embrace that balance, and those who
were not. And it speeded up a shift toward letting free market
principles shape development.

Some, like DeVillars and Esty, say such principles are vital to solving
increasingly complex problems. But others, like Wendlandt, say they are
the principles of the private sector, not of government agencies or
environmental groups, and not in nature's best interest.

President Clinton took the shift further. He declared that Americans did
not have to choose between jobs and the environment; they could have
both, especially if environmentalism focused more on people than on
eagles and bears, a shift evident at EPA and in many environmental
groups. Emerging environmental justice concerns in urban poor and
minority communities accelerated that shift. Environmental historians
like William Cronon drove it even faster, arguing that humanity is part
of nature, not outside of it.

Before long, a sector of the environmental movement split off into the
economic development game, where - sometimes under the name of
''sustainable development'' - it remains at odds with much of the rest
of the movement.

''We now measure everything we do economically, and by the cliched
thinking of economists, more is always better,'' said Bill McKibben,
author of ''The End of Nature'' and other books, and a skeptic of
pro-growth environmentalism.

''I suppose if the human enterprise must get bigger, it's better that it
get more efficient than less. But it may already be larger than what the
planet can sustain in the long run. We should be asking ourselves
whether we'd be better off with smaller populations and appetites.''

Such voices of skepticism come from all corners. Even some pro-growth
devotees agree with Wendlandt when she says this new environmentalism
may cross a dangerous line. Some, like Kevin Mills, senior attorney for
the Environmental Defense Fund, say its practical, incremental solutions
may amount to ''rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic'' if a minor
environmental problem is suddenly found to be major.

''If there's a crisis, will the solutions we're putting forward solve it
completely and quickly enough? That's the risk,'' Mills said. The top
crisis contender? Climate change, he said.

Esty adds that ''smart growth'' solutions run the risk of being
''yesterday's answers to tomorrow's problems.'' They fail to address the
already-built environment, such problems as climate change that are hard
to discern and rally around, and pollution by individuals that may be
slight but that adds up. A grander vision, he said, is needed, because
the ''incremental improvements of `smart growth' policies are not likely
to get us where we want to go.''

Some, like eco-designer William McDonough, even agree a bit with
skeptics such as Meadows and McKibben. If pro-growth environmentalism
''is nothing more than greater eco-efficiency, then it won't solve the
problem because it doesn't change the story, and so what they're saying
is exactly right,'' McDonough said. ''The story hasn't changed. It's
less harmful. But the story is still the destruction of the

McDonough, who is dean of the University of Virginia School of
Architecture and himself an architect whose clients have ranged from
Oberlin College to Wal-Mart, differs with Meadows and McKibben; he
believes that with a grander vision, this new environmentalism can
change that story.

Growth is not a problem as much as ''what we choose to grow,'' he said.
Nevertheless, he said, saving the environment of the next century and
beyond will require ''a much richer response.''

This story ran on page D01 of the Boston Globe on 04/18/99.
=A9 Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.