Guest View: Encouraging sustainable development at Tahoe |

Guest View: Encouraging sustainable development at Tahoe

Garry Bowen

At the end of July, the city held a Sustainability Kickoff, which, as the Tribune reported Aug. 4, was a group “working on a sustainability plan to keep the city’s quality of life high through the use of green practices,” and then made reference to it inside with this headline: “Officials struggle with sustainability.”

I gratefully accepted an invitation to participate, as I understand what the stakes actually are.

With the unusual combination of being raised in South Lake Tahoe and as someone with national and global sustainability credentials, I commend all efforts at making Tahoe sustainable. With an intimate knowledge of an era when Tahoe’s economy was robust and vibrant, the idea that Tahoe keep its quality of life “high” certainly needs the value-added concept of “sustainable economic development.” This is the perfect simile for the Tahoe Basin, as other places don’t quite have such overwrought responsibility for their surroundings in natural beauty.

Since earlier times, Lake Tahoe has somehow managed to adopt the heart-wrenching phrase “poverty with a view” to describe its economic situation, ostensibly due to a high degree of “regulation.” In noting that existing regulations have not stemmed the need for a more sustainable world, sustainable economic development allows for a more prudent alignment with the natural world we all inhabit with the needs of man to sustain himself with commerce. To that end, I now share the first known use of “sustainability” in public discourse. In 1913, the Canadian Conservation Corps defined it this way: “Man has every right to use the interest that nature provides, but not the capital.”

Most businesspeople should easily understand that one.

Sustainability is at its core about human behavior and its impact. As we realize how detrimental our impact has been most everywhere on Earth, the need to change our behavior becomes apparent. This would be the crux of any “sustainability plan,” which has as its intended consequence better use of both manmade and natural resources (including money) in conducting our affairs. The “use of green practices” almost always results in “found money,” which is why sustainable economic development is known for its capacity to be a “solution multiplier.” This, for example, would be the ultimate goal of a highly rated “green building” – its ever-higher rating results in proportionately ever-lower operating costs, something which has not been the ordinary province of the construction industry, hence some of their misunderstanding of the need for sustainable directions. And, it does not necessarily cost more, but saves lots over its lifespan.

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It’s about the bottom line, right?

Well, actually, it’s not. Sustainability is a top-line issue, in that it is to be a fundamental change in the way we think about and do things. Status quo is difficult to encounter, difficult to change, but oh-so-rewarding if done right, especially if new norms get us in better alignment with our natural world with higher understanding and less onerous regulatory environments. That such a top line also results in better bottom lines is not even in question, but provides an answer worth knowing.

Sustainable economic development is to be encouraged, and the “powers that be” commended for taking a long overdue position toward a more vital future for the Lake Tahoe Basin. If done right, Tahoe could easily be in the forefront as the global or national model so often talked about – but not yet realized.

– Garry Bowen, who grew up at the South Shore, is a charter member of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals, a group dealing with issues of real change at Lake Tahoe and around the world.