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When a healthy environment is good business

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The Varadero reef, it would seem, forces us to take sides. Are you on the side of a marvel of the natural world – a spectacular reef in the most improbable of places? Or are you on the side of the people whose lives could well improve if parts of the reef were destroyed to expand shipping to and from Cartagena, Colombia?

This week’s cover story has more than a hint of National Geographic about it. Hidden under the murky waters of one of South America’s busiest ports, divers have recently found a world beyond imagining. At a time when coral reefs worldwide are under significant stress from climate change, the Varadero reef is thriving in what would seem to be one of the least hospitable environments imaginable. As reefs go, Varadero is the ultimate underdog.

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But Cartagena is also Colombia’s biggest port. Dredging a swath through the reef would increase trade, create jobs, and drive down prices of some goods for Colombians. How do you weigh the value of a potentially unique ecosystem against the promise of greater prosperity and meaningful employment?

This has always been the core conflict of conservation, but it has taken on new urgency in an era of climate change. Must development come at an environmental cost – and a dire one at that? If so, then is the only remedy to adopt strict policies that prevent people in the developing world from rising out of poverty?

To be honest, there are no perfect answers to those questions. But there are signs that different approaches to answering them may at least lead to better solutions.

Take the “new conservation” movement that has sprung up in recent years. The central idea is that business and conservation need not be inveterate adversaries. To some environmentalists, this is deeply troubling. It is like the police cooperating with the Mafia. Particularly worrisome, they say, is a trend to put dollar values on nature. The idea is to convince corporations that conservation is actually good for business. Saving wetlands, for instance, can actually be more effective at scrubbing emissions from the atmosphere than installing factory filters.

The danger of that kind of thinking, of course, is that it would reduce the world’s wonders to a Wall Street balance sheet. But you could also say it’s a step toward a different kind of balance sheet, one that thinks about “value” and “wealth” in a new way.

You see it with the Varadero reef, where the business calculations are also considering the bounty that the ecosystem brings to local fishermen. In talking about Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Charles, Prince of Wales, has called for a “blue economy” that considers the reef as a part of the region’s wealth.

Decades ago, it was thought that global population trends would lead to mass starvation. Technology and human ingenuity have achieved the opposite: Hunger has declined even as the population has risen.

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Could the same sort of thing happen with the environment? Can it be protected and prosperity increase at the same time? That is one of the great challenges of the 21st century. But it begins with resetting our own expectations and, perhaps, a determination to take both sides. 

Saving the Varadero coral reef