WITH its two-year mission one-fourth over, President Clinton's Council on Sustainable Development ``is really still in its formative stages,'' says David Buzzelli, Dow Chemical's vice president and the council's co-chairman.
Perhaps one reason for the relatively slow start is the monumental nature of the council's task: to develop strategies for allowing the nation's economy to keep growing while protecting the environment and natural resources for future generations.
Jonathan Lash, World Resources Institute president and the council's other chairman, gives an example: The world's farmland, if the best agricultural practices were used, could support 15 billion people eating the minimum amount required, but only 1.4 billion on the diet typical of North America.
Looking at such statistics, some observers ask if the term ``sustainable development'' is an oxymoron. ``Technology just has to be a significant part of that solution,'' Mr. Buzzelli says.
Mr. Lash is upbeat about the council's progress during last week's meeting in Seattle, calling it the ``best'' of three held so far. The group - leaders from business, government, labor, civil rights, and environmental organizations - honed ``draft principles'' describing its goals but spent most of its time learning about how the Pacific Northwest is working to develop a sustainable regional economy. Over the next 18 months, the council will develop recommendations for Mr. Clinton.
Some observers wonder whether the group can achieve the ``real results'' Clinton has asked for. ``That's a danger of any of these commissions,'' says James Baker, a council member and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator. But he says the group has ``the right people,'' including Cabinet members, to succeed.
Another question is whether Clinton, looking toward the 1996 election, can put a priority on long-term concerns. Working in the council's favor will be the influence of Vice President Al Gore Jr., an environmentalist.
``I'm pleased by the obvious importance that [Mr. Gore] attaches to it,'' says Denis Hayes, who planned the first Earth Day and now heads an environmental group, the Bullitt Foundation. But he worries about the tendency of such broad-based, consensus-oriented groups to ``lean toward the lowest common denominator'' in their recommendations.
Mr. Hayes calls attention to two areas in which the council could make good progress: developing ``green'' procurement policies by the federal government and outlining solid measurements of national progress on sustainability, comparable to the economy's gross domestic product.
Along these lines, the Sustainable Seattle group told the council about 20 ``Indicators of Sustainable Community'' that it tracks, including population density, water use, salmon populations in local streams, and social criteria such as crime, literacy, and low-weight babies. Eleven indicators have been getting worse, the group says.
Like this local group, the council's mission includes social, economic, and environmental goals. Member Jay Hair, National Wildlife Federation president, describes sustainable development as a three-legged stool of the economy, ecology, and equity.
During the meeting, there were several signs of how hard it may be to integrate these goals. `` `Green' products which cost more or which don't meet customer expectations will not sell,'' Tom Korpalski, Hewlett-Packard's environmental manager, told the council. The firm has been working to meet environmental goals without raising product prices.
Hayes says about one-fifth of Americans are willing to pay more for ``green'' products. But he says more attention needs to be given to certification of firms' environmental claims.
Meanwhile, when council members discussed the ``draft principles,'' they argued over whether they should endorse the concept of economic ``growth,'' which some environmentalists view as unsustainable development.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt helped bring the group toward consensus by noting that not all growth in economic value involves more natural resources.
State Department counselor Tim Wirth urged the council to add a principle on stabilizing population growth. While the council's agenda is focused on the United States, its ideas could also influence other nations.
New principles will be unveiled for public comment in a few weeks, Lash says. They will guide council subcommittees working on issues like energy and pollution prevention.