Politicians Are Offering a False Choice Between Nature and the Economy

Protecting birds and the environment doesn’t have to come at the cost of economic health and growth.

As the new administration looks to slash environmental programs, we hear the same rationale over and over again: We can’t afford to protect the environment, because doing so damages our economy. There’s just one little problem—it’s not true.

You may already know this instinctively. Shopping for binoculars, traveling to new birding spots, hiring birding guides—
all of these activities feed the economy. In fact, one industry calculation estimates that outdoor recreation contributes more than $800 billion annually to the economy, and is directly or indirectly responsible for employing more than seven million people.

But the connections between
 a healthy environment and a healthy economy go much deeper than that. Take southern Florida. Businesspeople from a range of industries have told Florida’s government that when the Everglades and its surroundings suffer, so do their profits. And it’s not just boat salesmen and fishing guides who are speaking up. Real estate agents complain they can’t sell homes where pollution closes beaches and paints canals green for two-thirds of the year. Ninety-two percent of hotel owners in Lee County, near one highly publicized algal bloom, reported losing more than 100 nights of bookings because of the incident.

And for every example like these of economic losses caused by environmental problems, it’s easy to find plenty of cases of the reverse. In particular, environmental regulations create jobs targeting pollution reduction and cleanup. The Environmental Protection Agency’s mercury rule alone has created more than 100,000 jobs to date. One long-term study looking across paper, plastic, petroleum, and steel production found that when regulations were introduced, losses in dirty jobs were balanced out by jobs in retrofitting technology and cleaning pollution.

Sure, sometimes conservation measures can look expensive, particularly when there are plenty of other issues people of all parties want to tackle. Not all programs will succeed, and some could certainly be made leaner. Where investments can be trimmed without harming their positive outcomes, they should be. But that’s a far cry from using the economy as an excuse to slash programs that are real successes, both environmentally and economically speaking.

At Audubon, we pay attention to data, and the numbers show that we don’t have to choose between the environment we enjoy and the economy we need. We—and the birds we love—can have both.