Sustainable Development: Can Conservation Exist without Economic Stability?

So the quintessential dilemma in environmental policy seems to be the conservationist versus the hungry farmer/fishermen debate, which you’ve probably heard before. The conservationist has many arguments about protecting the forest or sea for its endless values, not just timber and fish but hard to quantify values like oxygen output and water purification, and also impossible to quantify values (although willingness-to-pay measures are trying) like aesthetic pleasure that creates wellness and feelings of wonder, connectedness, and fulfillment. But of those arguments can seem a bit diminished against a person that says, “But what are my children going to eat?”  I’m interested in finding a middle ground – a conservation strategy that can provide for the community and standards that are met alongside addressing social issues. To simplify, I normally tell people that I’m interested in Sustainable Development.

But my experience and research at Wild Rivers Coast Alliance (WRCA) has me questioning just about everything surrounding sustainability. What qualifications render something “sustainable”? I’ve been running into a lot of definitions. Most people agree that there are three basic principles that should be met (although often in varying degrees): Community, people, culture, i.e. social issues; Environment, ecosystem, conservation, i.e. ensure that the human dimension does not harm the natural surroundings, the goal to actually enhance the wildlife and restore it to its condition prior to human presence; and Economy, with the theory being that if the economy can develop, then the social and environmental needs can continue to be addressed. I’ve found that this dimension can also be debatable.

To me, the debate on the necessity of a growing economy is one of the most interesting questions in regards to sustainability, and one I think I’ll continue to develop during my time here at WRCA. Is a growing economy really necessary for conservation? What would conservation look like in an area of economic strife, if even possible? History seems to suggest that natural resources are the quickly exploited in sake of the economy. Some examples come to mind: the Dust Bowl throughout the southern prairies in the 1930s; The War and the Great Depression pressured farmers for a high crop yield, and exploitive agricultural practices led to a decade of dust for the region; In the 1960s and 70s Costa Rica reluctantly agreed to clear-cut many of their Tropical Forests for these same monoculture practices in order to export bananas, pineapples, and coffee to pay off international debt. What would “sustainable” practices look like in these cases? Would they even be possible, given the high crop demand?

My preliminary research seems to suggest that we may be facing a similar situation here on the Oregon South Coast. Throughout our nations’ history, the economy of the South Coast was bolstered by timber and marine/fish production. At its peak, timber accounted for nearly all of the pine across the U.S., and over 700,000 jobs throughout Oregon, on both federal and private lands. New federal regulations, along with increased competition from Canada and the Southeast U.S., led to a decline in the Oregon timber industry, which now accounts for around 250,000 jobs, mostly on private land. I have yet to research the numbers on fish production, but I’ve heard that a similar decline occurred, with the U.S. now importing a lot of their fish from international waters.

So as many organizations, including WRCA, attempt to launch conservation programs throughout the region, they are faced with the same farmer verses conservationist debate. How can we address social, economic and environmental problems? Can we avoid repeating exploitive resource practices? Furthermore, what would programs look like if the greatest weight was placed on the social and environmental aspects of sustainability? Would they survive? Encouragingly, it seems like many of the organizations that we work with are conservationists at heart, and also realize the importance social and economic development. They, too, are attempting to find a middle ground and reach a solution that contains all three principles.

It’s very exciting and enlightening to work at the forefront of this debate that I’ve continuously discussed in classrooms. I don’t have an answer to any of the questions that I brought up, but I think I’ll have a lot more light shed on possible solutions by the end of my Sea Grant experience, and I’m excited to continue to ponder these big questions. To help me ponder, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any topics discussed.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One thought on “Sustainable Development: Can Conservation Exist without Economic Stability?

  1. Very thought-provoking post! It’s one thing to learn and debate sustainability issues in a classroom, and something entirely different to have that conversation with people directly invested in various aspects of the “triple bottom line”. Relationships are critical to finding that balance. I’m looking forward to seeing how your thinking on this issues evolves as conversations progress this summer, and what insight you can share after working at their intersection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.