The Right Balance: Economic vs. Ecological Interests

At some point, the philosophical descendants of Adam Smith and John Muir will have to get together. Economic and ecological interests must coincide in a steady-state future - whether partisans in either camp like it or not. The only alternatives are use and abuse of the environment in unsustainable ways, or doing business in ways that are inherently unfair to the poor on a global scale (and in the end also unsustainable).

In fact, there may not have to be that great a philosophical leap. Writing in ''Environmental Ethics'' (a quarterly published by the Center for Environmental Philosophy at the University of North Texas), Denis Collins of the University of Wisconsin and John Barkdull of Texas Tech University explain why.

The essence of this scholarly piece is that a close reading of Adam Smith's work does not support the view that the ''invisible hand'' of free-market capitalism is necessarily bad for the environment.

''While it is true that some who claim to follow Smith advance dangerously selfish ethical positions, they are not true to Smith's intent,'' the authors write. ''Careful consideration of what Smith actually wrote ... indicates that he would advocate a strong, balanced environmental ethic and the judicious use of government power to ensure the viability of our way of life....

''Polluting common spaces, causing the shortening of another's life or loss of value of another's property by polluting and degrading the land, and diminishing future generations' enjoyment of the Earth for the sake of immediate profits are all subject to the greatest moral condemnation in Smith's ethical system,'' Collins and Barkdull assert.

Fortunately, and despite what seems to be a lot of posturing and shouting by special interests and their political champions these days, things are moving in that direction.

Increasing numbers of corporate leaders are becoming ''green,'' for example. Price Waterhouse reports that 40 percent of the companies it surveyed have elevated oversight of environmental compliance to their boards of directors. That's nearly twice as many as in 1992 and three times the figure for 1990. Seventy-three percent of the companies surveyed now conduct environmental audits (up from 40 percent in 1992), and 38 percent are factoring environmental performance into incentive compensation for executives and managers.

In her new book ''Green, Inc.: A Guide to Business and the Environment,'' Frances Cairncross, environment editor of The Economist magazine, argues that industry must play a key role in finding solutions to environmental problems - principally through technological innovation.

But Ms. Cairncross, who is generally pro-business, also acknowledges that ''the state of the environment is essentially the government's responsibility.'' Other experts note that national governments are starting to establish comprehensive strategies bringing together all interests and agencies to work toward environmental recovery and protection.

Leaders in this area, reports Huey Johnson in his recent book ''Green Plans: Greenprint for Sustainability,'' are the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Canada.

''What they are doing is truly revolutionary,'' writes Mr. Johnson, head of the Resource Renewal Institute and former Secretary for Resources in California. ''They have made environmental sustainability a key issue of national purpose.''

Similar plans are being considered in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the United Kingdom, Germany, Singapore, and the European Community. And in this country, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, New Jersey, Florida, Minnesota, and Connecticut are moving in this direction at the state level as well.

Johnson properly compares such efforts to the Wright brothers, ''pushing humanity over the threshold of a new era.'' The challenges are enormous, and there will be setbacks. But it's an exciting time to be watching and participating.

Experts note that governments are establishing strategies that bring together all interests to work toward environmental recovery and protection.

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