Earth Matters: Environment, economic growth not mutually exclusive

Is it possible to protect the environment while encouraging economic growth and vibrancy?

For a long time (and still in the eyes of many), the two goals are mutually exclusive.

To fully understand how this misperception persists, some historical context is helpful. A century ago, everything industry didn’t need went out the end of a pipe or up a smokestack. Since the early solution to pollution was dilution, this sort of approach seemed reasonable.

But as industrial activity became more widespread and the by-products more toxic, dilution alone could not address the problem. Many denied that pollution had a “cost,” disregarding the health and environmental effects of the pollution. When finally required to address it, industry saw only the cost of getting rid of or avoiding the harmful things they produced.

But a funny thing happened over the last three or four decades. Many businesses involved in extracting and using resources realized waste meant inefficiency and increased costs to the business, not just society.

Writer, entrepreneur and environmentalist Paul Hawken has long contended greener practices will ultimately be good for the environment and business in multiple ways. The author of seven books on the topic, Hawken spoke about his recent project and book, “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warm­ing” at Penn State’s Colloquium on the Environment.

His staff and researchers compiled a list of 100 things which can be done, to not just slow, but to reverse the production of greenhouse gasses. And these things are not theoretical or scientifically outlandish pipe dreams.

“All these things are being done now,” Hawken explained.

While Hawken makes the case for human activities being the root of climate change, he also emphasizes that the actions spelled out in “Drawdown” will go far beyond reducing greenhouse gasses. Rather than looking at this as a disaster waiting to happen, Hawken sees an opportunity.

“Any system that doesn’t provide feedback dies,” Hawken said. “So climate change is a gift.”

The fact that an alarm is sounding gives us a chance to respond.

Hawken spoke little of the current political attacks, climate change deniers and the U.S. abandonment of the Paris Accord. Instead, he encouraged a change to a more positive message, not one of doom and gloom.

“The climate science is extraordinary. The climate communication, however, is inept,” Hawken bluntly observed to the large Penn State crowd.

Hawken encouraged attendees to “be an example of what you want to be, rather than trying to change minds.” He humorously calls this approach “infectious repititus.”

The 100 actions spelled out in the book are varied, but all the expected players are on the list. What makes the list more insightful is the analysis that presents costs, benefits, effectiveness and challenges connected with each initiative.

The comprehensive nature of the list may be the most interesting component of the plan. Beyond rethinking our use of energy, “Drawdown” looks at changes we can make in the way we feed ourselves, how we use and what we grow on our land, the way we move ourselves and the goods we consume and even how we educate ourselves.

As Hawken himself concluded, “There is much extraordinary work to be done.”

John Frederick (jfrederick@ircenvironment.org) writes about the environment every other Wednesday. Visit www.drawdown.org to learn more about Hawken’s team’s work.

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