ASHLAND, ORE. — ECONOMIC growth and environmental protection - historically competing interests - have begun to merge politically in a tongue twister called ``sustainable development.''
The United Nations, following the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, is promoting this concept - defined as ``development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the future'' - among member nations and international agencies.
In the United States, President Clinton has brought together traditional rivals to advise his administration on sticky issues such as how to preserve jobs and communities while reforming industries that create toxic waste or deplete natural resources.
This week in Seattle, the President's Council on Sustainable Development will hold its first meeting outside of Washington, D.C. Named last summer, the 25-member council includes Cabinet officers, business and labor union executives, and environmental and civil rights leaders.
The job of the council is twofold: to make recommendations for a national sustainable development strategy and to highlight the best of what is already happening at the local level.
At its Seattle meeting on Jan. 13 and 14, the council will tour a unique recycling project as well as discuss draft recommendations on such issues as energy and agriculture.
While participants are enthusiastic, it is still unclear whether this group of prominent leaders with a small staff and budget can make a difference in national policy.
``All the signs are encouraging, but it's too early to tell whether it's going to be a success,'' says David Buzzelli, council cochairman and vice president of Dow Chemical Company.
Others say that the council has yet to confront such fundamental problems as the loss of old-growth forests, soil erosion, carbon emissions, species extinction, and population growth.
``Having seen some of the early drafts of their work, my concern is that the scientific underpinning of the exercise is not very solid,'' says Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute. ``The council is an interesting concept, but the jury is still out.''
``I think it definitely has some potential, but they're still very much in a learning mode,'' adds Robert Gilman, editor and publisher of ``In Context,'' a quarterly journal that has been dealing with issues related to sustainable development since long before the phrase became popular.
In fact, this coming together of what had been opposing interests is part of a trend that preceded both the year-old Clinton administration and the historic UN meeting in Rio de Janiero 18 months ago.
In the past several years, many business leaders have come to see that environmental problems are substantive - and not just political or a matter of public relations. Many national environmental leaders, on the other hand, have seen that a market approach to solving pollution and resource problems may be more effective than massive government regulations or endless lawsuits.
Most mainstream environmental group leaders, for example, support the North American Free Trade Agreement. And while there is widespread discontent among business leaders with the burden of federal legislation like the ``superfund'' law, which applies to toxic waste cleanup, the environmental record of manufacturing industries is improving in many ways.
``Environmental performance benchmarking is rapidly becoming a vital component of the total quality management efforts of major corporations,'' says Scott Fenn, director of the Investor Responsibility Research Center's environmental information service.
The research center tracks the record of Standard & Poor's 500 companies, and it recently reported that ``management attention devoted to environmental issues is rising across the board.''
``A growing number of companies view environmental issues as financially significant to their operations,'' states the ``1993 Corporate Environmental Profiles Directory,'' published last month by the Investor Responsibility Research Center. ``The data suggest that some companies in environmentally sensitive industries such as oil, chemicals, and paper may already have achieved significant competitive advantages over their peers in terms of environmental practices and performance.''
This willingness to rethink attitudes and change tactics - by both business leaders and environmentalists - meant the time was ripe for a commission on sustainable development.
``If the president's council had been proposed 10 years ago - when the country was more in an adversarial mode - nobody would have come,'' says Mr. Buzzelli, Dow Chemical's chief environmental officer.
Council cochairman Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, agrees: ``The council's membership and mandate reflect the belief that is growing among business and environmental leaders that good economic policy protects the environment and good environmental policy strengthens the economy.''
The question remains whether the philosophical underpinnings of sustainable development, on which most people agree, can translate into public policy and private action.