The Environment versus the Economy: A Losing Battle?

by Terence Jeyaretnam


As one of the first few eng  ineers to have qualified as an environmental engineer in the Australia, I have witnessed a turf-war like no other between economic development and the environment (including local community impact), both locally and globally. The past two decades have crystallised several battlegrounds, including climate change, hazardous waste, product stewardship and packaging, native title, resource limitation/depletion, impact on world heritage areas, water scarcity and urban sprawl.

There is an Australian colloquial saying, which goes along the lines of ‘up a raw sewerage creek without a paddle’ (the publishable version), which is an apt description of where interestingly both the economy and the environment are currently (globally speaking more so than locally, although the writing is on the wall for Australia too). Consequently, the battle lines are hardening on both fronts.

James Gustave Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University and who co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, advised Jimmy Carter; and headed the UN Development Programme said in an interview with the New Scientist in 2008 said the following, which sums up the position beautifully.

"My conclusion is that we're trying to do environmental policy and activism within a system that is simply too powerful. It's today's capitalism, with its overwhelming commitment to growth at all costs, its devolution of tremendous power into the corporate sector, and its blind faith in a market riddled with externalities. And it is also our own pathetic capitulation to consumerism. Even as the environmental community swims more strongly against the current, the current gets ever stronger and more treacherous, so environmentalism slips under… The environmental community, at least in the US, is weak when it comes to talking about lifestyle changes, about consumption, and it is reluctant to challenge growth or the power of corporations. A lot of the big issues have political immunity."

While this describes the state of play in the US, it is equally true for Australia. Environmentalism has had a few small wins, but the current is getting stronger and the paddles have long been lost. A number of big issues have either had political immunity or, at another extreme, political meltdown.

I was reading another edition of the New Scientist from 2009 last week, and it discussed the likelihood of us seeing the vanishing of the arctic ice sheet in our lifetimes. Well, in less than two years we are already seeing a very rapid decline, and the record thinning this year is suggesting that the Arctic could be ice-free by the end of the decade. We’ve also discovered that the Great Barrier Reef is half dead, with two-thirds of the loss since 1998. Climate related disasters are on the increase, with some significant enough to dent government budgets, cause migraines for insurers and kill people. A recent study Climate Vulnerability Monitor has found that climate change is already contributing to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people a year and costing the world more than $1.2 trillion, wiping 1.6% annually from global GDP. Climate change is no longer a long-term problem.

It is clear that the battle is one that we are losing – on both fronts. While the evidence is obvious and scientific alarm high on the link between environmental damage and economic impact, the temptation to hitch our wagons to the economic growth engine seems to be too high and too easy. Sadly, the likely future to environmental action now rests on seeing the evidence of our ignorance, sometimes catastrophically and irreversibly.


Beyond Growth Special Edition, Swimming Upstream,
New Scientist, October 2008

Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of A Hot Planet,
DARA Group & Climate Vulnerable Forum, October 2012

Terence Jeyaretnam is a Director of Net Balance (, 
one of the world’s leading sustainability advisory firms.
Terence is based in Melbourne