A Healthy Environment is the Strongest Economic Engine

This past March, at the 13th International Conference on Green and Energy-Efficient Building & New Technology and Products Expo, in Beijing, I spoke about net-zero energy buildings and green campus planning. I was there to not only present, but also to get a better handle on the attitudes and approaches behind sustainable design in China where the dialogue around green building is shifting from reducing carbon emissions in favor of designing healthy buildings – sealed interior environments that are oases of clean air.

At a time when the current U.S. administration is reconsidering the balance between protecting the environment and promoting America’s economic engine, this trip was eye-opening. While I was overseas, the U.S. President revealed his budget, which would reduce the EPA into non-existence.  All funding for protecting the Chesapeake Bay was eliminated.  I live and work within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, so this hit close to home, but similar cuts would affect other precious resources across the country. The logic behind these cuts? Regulations slow down the economic engine.  Protecting the Chesapeake Bay is essential to our regional economy, since fishing, tourism, real estate, and shipping with its watershed is a massive economic engine.  The commercial seafood industry alone in Maryland and Virginia contributes nearly $3.4 billion in sales, $890 million in income, and almost 34,000 jobs to the local economy. Saving the Bay spurs job growth, while protecting the countless livelihoods that depend on the Bay’s health.

Good design is not about creating hermetically sealed environments where occupants move between buildings in gerbil tubes and space suits—it is not resilient design or healthy.  Our connection to the natural environment is an essential component towards health and wellness. And as we near Earth Day, we must be reminded of the words of U.S. Senator and Founder of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson, that a healthy environment is the strongest economic engine:

“The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats, and biodiversity . . . that’s all there is. That’s the whole economy. That’s where all the economic activity and jobs come from. These biological systems are the sustaining wealth of the world.” 

So, I’d like to caution people against falling into the “trap” of thinking that sustainable design is about protecting the Earth and that is somehow in opposition with economic growth.  For me, sustainable design is about protecting human life on Earth.  If our populations disappeared (sooner than we may think if we don’t do more), the Earth will rebound and not long after our demise, will begin to flourish once again.  But, by embracing sustainable design, we’re working to protect the health and happiness of our population, and to protect the economic engine—the biological systems that sustain the wealth of the world.

5 thoughts on “A Healthy Environment is the Strongest Economic Engine

  1. Nick Salowich

    Excellent article, Greg! You don’t need a crystal ball to see our future in an unregulated economy – the crystal ball is in our past. For some reason, our leadership has gotten pretty good at forgetting the past and the reasons for which we developed the EPA. It is not so much that our national leadership does not possess the knowledge to make sound decisions, it’s that they don’t possess the political will, or the courage to act on what is right. It sickens me.

  2. Helen Kessler

    Greg – great article. Chilling to think that the Chinese have given up on a clean environment without pollution and are instead focusing on sealed interior environments. This will help frame the conversations I have with my students, 50% of whom are Chinese. The economic conversation must shift to take into account the cost of externalities to society and our planet as well as the eco-system services provided by, among other things, clean and healthy air. Thanks,
    Helen J. Kessler, FAIA, LEED Fellow

    1. Greg Mella

      Thanks Helen. I don’t think the Chinese have given up yet! I think perhaps out of necessity, they’re forced to deal with both the short term, immediate symptoms while hopefully addressing the long term, root cause. I’m going back to Shanghai (with Architecture 2030) in September to talk to 300 local architects about how to design towards net-zero. The hope is these architects will each train other architects and a movement towards net-zero energy will begin to flourish in China.

  3. Timohty Bartlett

    Our crazy President is hell bent on making the US look like China and other places in the world that are willing to exchange our health and healthy future for money in their own pockets…it doesn’t make any sense–as your article points out. Nor does the Executive Orders to ruin the EPA, remove protected status on our national parks and monuments, destroy our rivers and streams by yanking protective regulations and other foolish power trips swirling in Trump’s dull mind. When will ASLA unite with other like minded groups and work our lobby efforts to make sustainable changes?

    1. Greg Mella

      My colleague, Z Smith from Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, talked about “take a sinner to dinner” – the approach we should be using in response to our divided country and the short-sighted thinking that has prevailed lately. We need to stop talking about sustainable design as protecting the environment… Yes, we are protecting the environment, but our motivation is to protect human life and to protect our economy, by embracing sustainable design. Reframing the problem so it is more immediate – and – talking to those who don’t see the direct connections between sustainability and a thriving economy – that’s what we need to do.

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