The Greening of Growth

BUZZWORDS can be misleading. But it's nonetheless encouraging that leaders of Fortune 500 companies and of principal US environmental groups have agreed on a general path to ''sustainable growth.''

''Sustainability,'' in case you've misplaced your hand-held translator, means carrying on economic growth without injuring Earth's environment. Its centerpiece: improving industrial processes so they don't pollute.

Media and political observers seemed surprised that the President's Council on Sustainable Development - composed of such supposed cats and dogs as chemical, oil, and forest-products executives and leaders of the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Environmental Defense Fund - could agree on how to preserve, revise, and extend current environmental laws. But they did so, in broad strokes.

Those who have followed the quiet work of Dow Chemical Vice President David Buzzelli and World Resources Institute President Jonathan Lash were not surprised. The co-chairmen of the president's council have taken seriously their charge to come up with pragmatic answers to one of history's biggest challenges - not fouling our planetary nest irreparably.

It's important that the US develop such an overall strategy. If it fails to do so, Washington is in a poor position to press tomorrow's major polluters - the developing nations - for restraint.

A familiar example: In China, a billion bicyclers will switch to motorcycles and a planned mass-produced people's car. Unless this move is made with lower energy consumption and pollution in both vehicle production and use, there will be a dramatic acceleration in atmospheric pollution.

US firms can help by further pioneering pollution-curbing manufacturing processes, and thus showing China and other fast-developing nations that America practices what it lectures.

A major ingredient in the presidential council's broad road map is flexibility in applying regulations. Emphasis would be placed on getting results, not prescribing in cramping detail how they are obtained. The council also emphasized the role of population restraint in accomplishing its goal.

In pollution control, population control, and atomic, biological, and chemical weapons control, the US can lead best when it gets its own house in order. Messrs. Buzzelli, Lash, and colleagues deserve thanks for their guidance in one crucial area.

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