06/11/2013 02:37 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

No Pain, No Gain

Environmental protection starts out at a disadvantage because it frequently requires high initial costs to realize long term gain. That can make it a tough sell when opponents counter with an alternative that provides immediate economic gratification, even if it is at the expense of future wellbeing.

Let's face it. It is human nature as well as a powerful sense of logic that prompts people to elevate the present over the future. If one cannot navigate the present, there is no future.

But there is an important caveat. It is how we deal with the present that goes a long way in determining the quality of life in the future. The environmental movement's challenge is to instill that forward looking concept (which may entail restrictions, higher initial costs, etc.), even when people are immersed in the heat of the moment and prone to procrastinate out of expediency.

The examples of the predicament that environmental policy makers face are pervasive. Cutting back on harvesting overfished species may cause temporary economic hardship, but will allow time for stocks to recover and ultimately save the industry. Restoring fish populations also reinstates a balance that prevents an unwelcome explosion of jellyfish and the havoc they wreak on the oceanic environment.

Clean renewable energy (such as wind and solar) is initially more expensive than conventional fuels because of higher startup costs. Over time, however, the consumer comes out ahead because of amortization, and society experiences a big payoff in terms of a sustainable, healthier environment.

Restrictions on commercial activity in flood plains may cost the business community opportunities for profit, but will preserve a mitigating buffer against future destructive overflows. Selective logging doesn't take down as many trees for harvest as clear cutting, but in the long run, the forest will be more biologically productive.

The tourism industry may not be all that keen about restrictions on guests' contact with nearby coral reefs. But the regulations may keep the corals alive not just for future limited recreational use but as a crucial habitat for marine biota.

Environmentalists' basic credo, the Precautionary Principle, epitomizes the philosophy "better safe than sorry". It dictates what can turn out too be costly protective action against a threat, even in the absence of conclusive proof. The rationale for this economic "gamble" is that the uncertainty is outweighed by the magnitude of risk; and there is further justification when the precautionary measures make environmental sense in their own right (which is usually the case). Large scale energy conservation and reforestation to curb global warming are dramatic cases in point.

So next time you hear someone rail about the oppressive nature of environmental regulation, just remember this. Like so many other things in life, rehabilitation of an environmentally stressed planet may require some "pain" to experience "gain".