Book Review

"Achieving Eco-nomic Security" rings a Bell

by Lori Saldaña
he latest issue of Sierra magazine quotes a 1993 survey that examined p erceived tradeoffs between economic growth and environmental protection. The survey, conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc., asked: "Generally speaking, in situations where there are close calls between economic development and protecting the environment, do you usually believe it is more important to promote economic development or... to protect the environment?"
Economic development was rated more important by 30 percent of the respondents, 18 percent thought that it "depends on specific situation." But the majority - 55 percent - replied it was "more important to protect the environment."
While these results may be heartening (or disheartening, depending on your viewpoint), the question itself contains a common, implicit assumption: that sound economic development and responsible environmental policy are contrary goals.
If you think this is so, perhaps it's because you haven't read Achieving Eco-nomic Security on Spaceship Earth by San Diego author Jim Bell. This book presents a sweeping study of important and frequently overlooked connections between environmental health and economic prosperity.
"Eco-nomic security" is described in the book as "the condition in which all economic activities, individually and in concert, are conducted in ways that preserve the ecological foundation upon which they ultimately rest." This approach sounds a bit ambitious, but self-described "ecological designer" Bell is just the person to attempt it. His book is the culmination of 18 years of work, during which time he has studied, lectured and written about the changes he believes must take place to ensure that energy, water, agriculture and forest product industries are operated in economically and ecologically sustainable ways.
The book presents a comprehensive analysis of resource consumption and land use, proposing a new way of analyzing costs and benefits - what Bell refers to as "true-cost pricing." He examines the impacts of a growing human population, our reliance on non-renewable resources, and the "hidden costs" behind the water we drink, the crops we harvest and the energy sources we rely on. He also describes how well-intentioned subsidies often create wasteful habits.
His book is full of startling examples of poor investments, contrasted with potential savings from relatively simple operational changes. For example, he quotes from a study produced by the Rocky Mountain Institute: "Energy savings received less than $1 billion (in subsidies) and returned 185 times as much in savings per Federal dollar invested than a dollar invested in nuclear power." A few pages later he quotes from an article in Time magazine (January 2, 1989) that claimed that in "a recent EPA study of 28 firms that have undertaken waste-reduction measures, 54 percent found that their investment paid for itself in less than a year."
Bell's sources of information are varied. In addition to material derived from his own experience in the field, he quotes newspapers and general interest magazines as well as books, journals and reports. He isn't keeping his sources secret, either; the book contains 820 footnotes. Given the variety of points of view, Bell's comprehensive citations allow you to check original sources of the information before making a final decision about what it all means. Obviously, reports from the Los Angeles Times or The Wall Street Journal have already passed through their own editorial filter before reaching this book.
If you are exclusively concerned about wildlife conservation or dwindling fisheries populations, this may not be the book for you. Bell has chosen to focus on terrestrial ecology and our uses and abuses of what he considers "basic fundamental things," like water, forest and agricultural products, and energy sources. While habitit protection is certainly connected to this, it is not the focus of the book.
At present, Achieving Eco-nomic Security is published on recycled paper by Bell's non-profit organization, the Ecological Life Systems Institute (ELSI).
This is a very credible first work, and a good choice for readers ready to move beyond poolside fiction and into serious "back to school" thoughts of late summer. No environmental studies library would be complete without it.
(To purchase Achieving Eco-nomic Security, call ELSI at (619) 281-1447).

Lori Saldaña, a regular contributor to the Earth Times, is a writer, public speaker and photographer who specializes in conservation and environmental issues.