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.

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