Strap in for an exciting debate about whether environmental preservation should trump economic growth. In particular, the growing desire for energy independence to alleviate foreign oil investments is a continual topic of discussion in the media. As many Americans are facing more turmoil at the pump, conversations about domestic production of oil have consistently developed. While many economists are wary of the economic advantages of domestic drilling, serious discussions about projects, such as the Keystone XL pipeline, continue.
The question that needs to be asked, however, is, should the preservation of our natural ecosystem be more important than economic growth? The answer is surprisingly complicated. Presented below are two varying viewpoints on the topic.
Belief #1: Preserving the Natural Ecosystem is More Important
Upon first glance, it is easy to note that the preservation of our natural ecosystem is vitally important, as it is the basis of economic activity. The production demands of a global economy rely heavily upon natural resources and materials. Without consideration of the environment, economies are less likely to thrive long-term. As natural resources are relatively finite, a pure economic focus on profit-making, regardless of environmental impact, will substantially limit future potential growth. In order to drive an economy forward, there must be environmentally conscious decisions.
Take, for instance, the following situation: an economy with unregulated resource extraction and pollution seeking to increase its economic growth potential. Initially, the economy will grow as production increases and goods and services are provided to consumers. The problem, however, is the method of growth; uncontrolled production at the expense of the environment will lead to crises related to environmental degradation, health issues, and contaminated food and water sources. How can the economy sustain itself in the future if its consumer base is suffering rather than benefiting from stronger economic growth?
Belief #2: Economic Growth is Most Important
On the other hand, it can be argued that economic growth should have more bearing than the maintenance of the natural ecosystem. The substantial economic reliance on rapid resource extraction in the present day is, unfortunately, the basis of production and industrial growth. Look at how much the American economy relies upon oil production. A rapid rise in oil prices translates to higher gas prices, food prices, and more expensive products. While the practice of relying heavily on oil production for economic sustenance is unsustainable, the current energy crisis in the U.S. has led to the consideration of extensive measures to ensure continued economic growth through resource extraction, regardless of environmental impact.
The decision to increase domestic oil production at the expense of the environment is deemed by many leaders as a necessary evil in order to sustain economic conditions and production demands. Until economies significantly adopt alternative methods of production and reliance on renewable energy rather than natural resources, it can be argued that economic growth is more important than preservation of the natural ecosystem.
Why Can’t They Both Be Important?
The previous two viewpoints are drastically different, and it is unlikely that all individuals will come to an agreement on which one is more credible. It is not, however, impossible to assume that both economic growth and preservation of the ecosystem are doubly important and that one does not have more sway than the other. Economic growth and the preservation of the ecosystem can work hand-in-hand, but there must be a willingness of economies to develop new methods of energy and material production.
The purpose of this blog post is not to say that one way is better than the other but to provide two different viewpoints in the hopes of spurring conversation. As sustainability professionals, we must be able to understand the topics presented and justify our opinions. Whatever your personal beliefs may be, there is little denying the need to rise above the economic turmoil brought up by the global recession. Given the two viewpoints provided above, which do you think is more important: preservation of the ecosystem or economic growth (or both)?