January 4, 2016 |Larry Selzer | Partnerships

Environmental Sustainability and Economic Vitality: We Can Have Both

It seems to me that the environmental movement has reached an inflection point. The challenges we face today—things like climate change, food and water security, and the loss of productive forestland—require a new, more balanced approach than we have pursued in the past. What this new approach will look like is still being determined, but we have some clues that I will come back to in a moment.

First, I think it is important to understand how the conservation movement got to where we are now, which is a movement profoundly good at saying “no,” but with limited capacity to say “yes.” This posture, focused largely on stopping bad things from happening, emerged out of the middle of the 20th century when industrial pollution was overwhelming most of our natural systems. After Rachel Carson published her seminal book “Silent Spring,” the environmental movement began to get organized for the first time. Her book unleashed a tidal wave of grassroots activism across the country. Today there are more than 10,000 environmental nonprofits operating in the United States and more than 50,000 pieces of environmental legislation and regulation on the federal, state and local books, including some of the most important laws this country has ever passed: the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Through our conservation efforts, we restore nature, provide refuge for wildlife, create recreation and economic opportunities for people, and expand national, state and local lands. Photo of pronghorn antelope migration in WY by Mark Gocke.

With these laws and regulations, the environmental movement has had great successes, but they have come with a price. We have been so focused on stopping things, that we have not developed the skills and ideas needed to continue our record of success through the next century.

The future of the environmental movement must be based on meeting the needs of people as well as the needs of nature. It must engage all Americans, and it must be driven by new ideas that can scale up to match the magnitude of our challenges.

We put our partners first. Whether we are working with a government, community or business, we understand their top  conservation priorities and help them achieve them with efficiently and effectively. Photo by Ivan LaBianca.

We cannot deny the need to rebuild our nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure. We cannot say we are for renewable energy and then fight almost every project that is proposed. And we cannot ignore the economic needs of those Americans—rural and urban—who have not had a voice in the environmental policies and practices of the past.

More than 23 million Americans across the country have limited to fresh food, due in part to an inability for the people growing the food to get their product to market. We’re working with transportation leaders to bring transportation—and fresh, healthy food—to the places that need it most. Photo by Ezra Gregg.

It’s time for the environmental movement to become solution-oriented, not just results-oriented. America needs jobs and environmental protection; high quality food and high quality habitat; more open space and more places for another 250 million people to live. We are a growing nation and if the environmental movement wants to remain a powerful and relevant force in this country, then we need to recognize our obligation to help develop new solutions. There will always be things we should say “no” to, but that can’t be all that we do.

The Conservation Fund, uniquely positioned in the environmental movement as the only organization chartered for both conservation and economic development, has a thirty-year history of being solution-oriented. Yes, we have protected more than 7.5 million acres of America’s magnificent land legacy, but we also have pioneered solutions to the challenges of sustainable fish farming, small business development in natural resource-rich areas, smart growth in rural, underserved communities, and the loss of millions of acres of productive forestland. In each of these areas, we are bringing together the passion of the environmental movement with the innovation, sophistication and scale of business to create new pathways to prosperity and environmental protection.

We know that environment solutions need to make economic sense, and our unique lending programs make that possible. By providing capital to green businesses and community programs, we’re helping to support a sustainable economy. Photo by Durham Co-op Market.

Inflection points are a time of uncertainty and change, but the environmental movement in its entirety can embrace the tremendous opportunities that this period of change offers, then we will remain a powerful and relevant force in America for generations to come. At The Conservation Fund, we were founded on this mission and we intend to redouble our efforts. I hope others will join us.

Written by

Larry Selzer

Larry Selzer is President and CEO of The Conservation Fund. Appointed in 2001, he has led the Fund through significant growth while advancing its environmental and economic goals.