Is there an economic argument for environmental protection?

George Mitchell was fond of posing the question, “If you can’t make the world work with six billion people, how are you going to make it work with ten billion?”

He knew that true sustainability ensures human well-being through social and economic systems while also maintaining the ecological systems of the planet. He was keenly aware that we must weigh all three equally—the welfare of future generations is at stake.

As one of the earliest voices of the sustainability movement, George recognized the symbiotic nature of environmental protection, social well-being, and economic development, and he was deeply committed to fostering all three.

To endure—to make our world work with ten billion people—George knew that we must get past the conventional thinking that environmental protection and social well-being are barriers to economic growth and development. Conventional wisdom tells us that it is impossible, under current governance structures and market regimes, to balance economic, environmental, and social well-being for the long-term. The seeming paradox between these elements has become an increasingly contentious issue.

Society is forced to measure and make trade-offs between what we see as mutually exclusive components of sustainability. To make sustainability decision-making even more complex, we must also consider trade-offs between the well-being of current and future generations and between rich and poor nations.

Defining and engaging in a process to make these trade-offs is a grand, long-term challenge and calls for continued dialogue and debate—conversations that bridge disparate audiences across the economic spectrum, including influencers and decision-makers, and result in innovative action.

With this in mind, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation is delighted to launch its 2016 blogging initiative, “The Economic Argument for Environmental Protection.” We will follow the discussion about the economic aspects of environmental sustainability with a series focused on the equally complex and critical social perspectives on sustainability.

We will curate data and opinions from a number of experts and leaders from the business, technology, sustainability, environment, journalism, academic, and policy communities that explore topics and issues related to this complicated and complex subject.

We must begin with understanding the relationship between markets, the economy, industry, and environmental protection. Sustainable development seeks to make the competing goals of economic growth and environmental protection compatible.

Is this possible?

If so, does a solution represent an eclipse of the ethical and political components of environmental needs by economic interests and priorities?

Many argue that environmental degradation has resulted from the failure of the market to assign proper value to the environment, even though the environment serves valid economic functions and provides other benefits. This argument states that, because environmental assets are undervalued (e.g., water), they tend to be overused and abused, resulting in environmental damage. Because many environmental resources are not included in the vocabulary of economics and do not have established price points, there is not a strong incentive to protect them.

Natural resources that are open access resources and have no ownership or property rights assigned to them, such as the oceans or the atmosphere, are subject to profound ecological degradation. In the absence of any market, property rights, or incentives to protect these resources, the establishment of government regulations is often the route to ensure protection. For entities, industries, and individuals that abhor government interference in markets, these regulations represent an overreach or unacceptable economic burden.
Today, many companies claim that sustainability is woven into their DNA, yet few have truly integrated environmental considerations into their organizational strategies and decision-making processes. Sustainability managers are often among the first to be laid off in a market downturn. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, capitalists have focused on financial gain as an exclusive driver, while sustainability initiatives have been relegated to a silo quite separate from core business strategies and value propositions.

Can a sustainable, viable economic argument be made for environmental protection? Does it make good business sense to establish practices of protecting the natural environment on individual, organizational, or governmental levels for the benefit of both the natural environment and humans?

We invite you to join us over the next several months as we explore these questions and the fascinating spectrum of issues that influence our economy as well as environmental protection. We invite you to read our weekly posts from a global community of experts tackling similar puzzles with varying perspectives and tactics.

Editor's note: This is the first post from the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative "The Economic Argument for Environmental Protection." The foundation works as an engine of change in both policy and practice, supporting high-impact projects at the nexus of environmental protection, social equity, and economic vibrancy. Follow the foundation on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for regular updates from the foundation.


The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "The Economic Argument for Environmental Protection," are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation.

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