07/09/2012 08:41 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2012

Sustainability and the Politics of Environmental Protection

The outcry against high pressure hydraulic fracturing and the growing movement toward environmental protection in China are examples of the constant and growing force of environmental protection in politics. For decades there has been consistent pressure from shortsighted corporations and some right wing ideologues to reframe the environmental issue as one of over-regulation and define it as a trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection. There has been a concerted effort to portray environmentalists as effete, intellectual snobs who don't care about jobs for average people.

Despite this relentless onslaught, environmental protection continues to enjoy deep political support in the United States. This can often be seen at the community level when homeowners are faced with specific, visible environmental damage that they believe will affect their family's health or the economic value of their homes. Under those conditions, no amount of high priced PR can counter the political force of an enraged community that believes it has been damaged.

I frequently make the argument that a more profitable economy is one based on sustainability principles: Minimal use of finite resources, minimal environmental impact during consumption and production, and maximum use of renewable and recycled resources. A key difference between sustainability and traditional notions of environmental protection is a focus on the economic necessity and value of our planet's natural systems. We don't protect nature because we love it, but because we need it. Put simply, we are all biological creatures. While we could live without smartphones and the Internet, we cannot live without food, water and air.

It is true that many communities hunger for the economic benefits of resource extraction and industrial production. These communities use a wide variety of incentives to attract businesses and often allow industry a free hand when they first arrive. However, if that industry damages the environment, a political reaction can set in that is powerful and impervious to logic or cost-benefit analysis.

The "not-in-my-backyard" (NIMBY) syndrome has its roots in the actions taken and images communicated during decades of irresponsible, stupid and often greedy corporate behavior. Fortunately, most corporations recognize that poisoning people and the planet brings more costs than benefits. Nevertheless, we all know of factories that poison workers and dump waste into nearby waterways and ecosystems. There are many examples of mining and drilling operations that inadvertently or, even worse, by design, destroy local ecosystems. The benefits generated by the gas, oil, or mineral mined, or by the factory's outputs, are short term. The need for poison-free air, water and soil never goes away.

People want the benefits of the modern economy, but do not want them at any price. We see this in some of the rural areas of New York State's southern tier. Upstate New York has been an economic disaster for decades, and the need for economic stimulus is strong. Solutions ranging from casino gambling to natural gas extraction have held out the promise of economic growth. Despite the need for jobs, New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo recognized that any rule permitting hydrofracking would need to allow for local veto if it was to have any chance of being enacted. After several years of emotional and contentious debate, it is still not clear if New York will ever allow this gas to be extracted.

More dramatically, we see the power of environmental politics in a story filed last week by New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher. Discussing the siting of a large copper smelter in China, Bradsher writes that the increased strength of China's environmental movement is starting to have an influence on industrial policy. According to Bradsher:

Large and sometimes violent demonstrations against the planned construction of one of the largest copper smelting complexes on earth prompted local officials in southwestern China's Sichuan Province to continue backpedaling furiously on Wednesday. The local government of Shifang, the planned site of the smelter, announced in a statement that the construction of the $1.6 billion complex had not only been suspended but also permanently canceled.

While in the past it would be easy enough to simply move the factory from one place to another, Bradsher notes that due to massive adoption and use of the Internet throughout China, the state is unable to control the dissemination of information. Chinese environmentalists are successfully mobilizing public opinion on some key environmental issues. In my view, this political development is very similar to the power and force first demonstrated by environmentalists in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. American environmentalists did not have the Internet, and did not face overt censorship, and so any comparison must be tempered by those facts. But, as in China, our early environmentalists included many skillful propagandists and community organizers who made use of the mass media and local campaigns to spread their message.

Politics typically follows social change, and the movement toward safer production and consumption enjoys wide acceptance among the American public. The American public is changing. People will always stuff themselves with high-calorie junk at fast food outlets, but those same establishments are all offering healthy options, as well. Housing values reflect the presence or absence of environmental insults ranging from air pollution to noise from traffic. As I often say, everyone knows that wooded place at which they used to hike or camp that today is a strip mall. The average person has the clear sense that the planet is more crowded and its resources more stressed than they used to be. This is not ideology, but reality. Seven billion people use up more stuff than three billion people.

In America and now in China, this sense of environmental threat has changed people's perceptions of the planet's health. This change in our understanding of how the world works creates a latent political force that is available to be expressed in New York's fracking battle, and is beginning to be felt through the haze of Chinese economic development policy.

There are two sides to this story. Americans want the free enterprise system to have the freedom to create new products and wealth and want to be able to consume the bounty of that system. But they also want clean air, water and healthy food. The field of sustainability management argues that we can manage our economy to simultaneously promote environmental protection and economic growth. But we can't do it without rules, strategic planning, technological breakthroughs and innovative organizations. Most environmentalists and most business leaders have begun to understand the need for both production and protection. This requires a public-private partnership and an understanding of the important and legitimate role of an active and competent government in assuring sustainability. Ideological opposition to all corporate industrial processes and all governmental regulation is an unhelpful remnant of the past.