Strategies for Sustaining the Environment

Nature, Economic Development Are Not at Opposite Poles, CNR Professor Romm Tells Bay Area Environmental Leaders

by Alice K. Boatwright

Achieving a sustainable environment will require giving up old habits and myths, accepting the limits of government, refocusing on human dignity and understanding how issues are related, according to professor Jeffrey Romm.

"The context from which we look at environmental issues has been fundamentally changed, but we have gotten into a stylized dance with regard to sustainability that has eroded public trust and reduced our capacity to solve problems," he said.

Romm, a professor of resource and environmental policy in the College of Natural Resources, addressed a group of Bay Area environmental leaders in San Francisco on March 17.

The lecture was part the Environmental Leadership Roundtable presented by UC Berkeley Extension's Department of Environmental Management. The roundtable brings together 30 to 50 invited environmental leaders from both the corporate and advocacy communities each month to discuss how we can work toward a more environmentally just and sustainable Bay Area.

Old habits of thinking have to be overcome, said Romm, including the idea that the environment and economic development are opposite poles, and that there is an "other guy" against whom regulatory action or punitive measures can work.

"We have been too interested in consequences rather than causes," he said, "and have focused too much on specifics, rather than aggregations."

For example, instead of focusing on one polluting plant, we should be looking at a whole aggregate of activity in the Bay Area, he said.

Other stagnant ideas and strategies cited were "the stonewall syndrome," where opposing sides refuse to budge, and the frontier myth. "There is no unconstrained freedom on earth and no pristine environment left anywhere," said Romm. "Focusing on this romantic idea distracts us from thinking about what will work."

Our typical reliance on government regulation, he said, is not one of the things that will work. "Governments can only mediate, they can not enforce, because they don't control the ground."

There's no way, for example, for an Asian government to live up to a biodiversity agreement when millions of people have no fuel except wood.

"One by one, they'll go out and cut wood. Under cover of darkness if they have to," said Romm. "A government can't stop them."

This is also an example of what Romm describes as "a real loss of a sense of people" in the environmental movement. "We talk about job loss without acknowledging the fear people feel at the loss of their livelihood, their way of life. We forget sometimes that there are real people--real live children--involved."

Another critical change in the context of environmental issues comes from the shift all over the world to market economies. "There is such hope and success in the market that governments are reluctant to look at the problems," said Romm.

While there has been a general improvement in everyone's well-being at the same time the economic gaps between people are increasing. Rapid growth causes resources to shift toward urban areas, depriving rural areas. On the other hand, he said, the information explosion means that expectations have been democratized: everyone knows about and wants the same things. Opportunities are nevertheless increasingly unequal.

"The environment is part of our capital account," said Romm. "We need to look at aggregate patterns, aggregate technologies, and see a sustainable environment as a means to a social end, rather than a specific end in itself."


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