June 5, 2013 —
Recently we read with great interest Sullivan County Legislative Chair Scott Samuelson’s State of the County Report, in which he called for sustainable economic development to be the foundation for our future. We agree that sustainable development is a necessity, but not everyone agrees on the term’s meaning. As we see it, without environmental preservation factored in, no economic development plan can be truly sustainable.
The ultimate goal of economic development is to improve the economic security of a geographic place. Policymakers and others work to facilitate activities that support the community’s health, safety and social well-being; address infrastructure needs; invest in human capital; and foster regional collaboration (sometimes also regional competition). Seen broadly, economic development is about more than just jobs creation, though fashioning a climate that will create jobs plays an indispensable part.
When Samuelson adds the word “sustainable” in front of the phrase “economic development,” we hope he is talking about a “clean economy,” i.e. one that will bring green jobs, sustainable jobs, jobs with low-carbon footprints, jobs that will pay people a living wage. We see the economy of the 21st century being transformed with green businesses leading the way, creating jobs around clean environmental technologies, conservation, resource efficiency, renewable energy generation, pollution prevention, waste minimization and recycling. This “clean economy” has huge potential for growth, but it will require leaving behind business-as-usual thinking.
According to a resource guide for sustainable communities developed in 2011 for the Climate Leadership Academy on Sustainable Economic Development (www.iscvt.org/who_we_are/publications/Resource-Guide-Sustainable-Economi... ), “developing a sustainable economy will require a dramatic transition, ‘from an old economy that is high-carbon, high-pollution, waste-intensive and ecologically disruptive, to a new economy that is low- or zero-carbon, low-pollution, energy/resource efficient and ecologically supportive.’” (www.globalurban.org/Sustainable%20Economic%20Development.pdf ) As the world changes due to planet-altering events like global warming, peak oil and environmental degradation transformation is inevitable.
Instead of seeing sustainability and environmental goals as a drain on the economy, public-sector policymakers and private-sector business leaders increasingly will recognize the opportunities that can be created through sustainable economic development. In his report on Sullivan County, Samuelson highlighted the potential for agriculture and new agribusinesses—including the development of a regional food hub and projects to create a red-meat processing facility and a dairy processing plant—as positive steps toward making local farms more profitable (in turn helping to preserve farmland and open space). Such projects rely on growth that is sustainable.
Businesses, towns, and whole regions that lead this new economic revolution stand to prosper. In fact, the new economy has the potential to outperform the old one according to growing numbers of sustainability experts. To make this potential real, governments in partnership with the private sector and non-profits will need to work proactively at unprecedented levels in collaboration and innovation. Work also must be done to raise public awareness and involvement, because a broad base of public support will be essential for success.
Strategies for achieving sustainable economic development include: clustering green businesses together, improving the environmental performance of existing firms, promoting sustainable real estate development (mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable and transit-supported communities), green investment and workforce training to provide employees for green and clean tech jobs. (www.globalurban.org/Sustainable%20Economic%20Development.pdf )
Coal and railroads created America’s first Industrial Revolution. A second one followed, fueled by automobiles and petroleum. Computers, mobile phones and the Internet led a third. This time, the development of a green economy will drive the next revolution—creating new enterprises, new jobs and new wealth.
Those communities that lead the way in the sustainability revolution by emphasizing innovation, efficiency and conservation and by nurturing natural and human assets will put themselves in a better position to participate in the 21st century economy. Those who lag will be left behind.