By Nicole Johnson,
Conservancy of Southwest Florida
Director Governmental Relations

The term “sustainability” has as many definitions as there are perspectives on how our actions today impact our world tomorrow – and why we should care.  From my perspective, one of the most important goals of the 2015 SWFL Sustainability Summit, held in Fort Myers on April 30, was to challenge participants to collaboratively discuss how their definition of sustainability can be applied to create a shared vision and action plan moving forward.

According to Paul Hawken, environmentalist, entrepreneur and author, “The first rule of sustainability is to align with natural forces, or at least not try to defy them.”   Our natural forces, or resources, are foundational to both our quality of life and our economy, especially here in Southwest Florida.  Imagine if you will a stately building, with a solid foundation, ornate pillars and a gable roof.  Now, imagine that foundation composed of our natural resources (clean water, wetlands, mangrove forests, listed species habitat, etc.).  As everybody knows, a building which lacks a solid foundation will lack structural integrity.  It might not be realized immediately, but it will manifest itself eventually.  Therefore, a solid foundation is essential.

Next, visualize our quality of life issues as the pillars on top of the foundation (tourism, ecotourism, economic diversification, future growth and development, etc.)  These pillars are what will prop up the roof of the building, which is represented by a healthy economy.  The point is that not only is our environment, quality of life and economy inextricably linked, but a vibrant quality of life and robust economy are built upon, and cannot happen without, a healthy environment.  The Conservancy calls this ECOnomics, and we believe that in order to work towards sustainability, the principles of ECOnomics must be in the forefront of the discussion.

One final component of a solid building that must be mentioned is the reinforcing steel, which runs throughout the foundation, pillars and roof.  This reinforcement isn’t seen when the building is finished, but is necessary for the building to stand.  In our ECOnomics building, this reinforcement is accomplished by the laws and regulations that govern land use policy and protection of natural resources.  Without these regulations, our environment, quality of life and economy are jeopardized.

Therefore, from the Conservancy’s perspective, one of the most serious challenges to growing in a sustainable manner is debunking the myth that economic recovery and growth is predicated upon weakening and eliminating environmental policies and laws.  In 2011, Florida’s growth management laws were severely weakened and the State’s land planning agency was eviscerated.  The contention was that Florida’s growth management laws of the 1970s and 1980s were to blame for the devastating effects of the 2007 recession.  The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission actually investigated this claim and found that the great recession and Florida’s economic collapse was not due to our growth management policies. No surprise, it was due to rampant real estate speculation, insufficient regulations and inappropriate underwriting standards.  However, the recession was still used to weaken and eliminate growth management and many other environmental regulations that had taken decades of bi-partisan leadership to create.

The reality is that we are adding 800 new residents a day in Florida, and are anticipated to return to the pre-recession population growth rate of 1000 new residents daily in the near future.  Already, the Naples area is the 10th fastest growing area in the nation, and Cape Coral-Ft. Myers is ranked 6th.  Unfortunately, with severely weakened state growth management and natural resource protection regulations and oversight, more responsibility will fall on local governments to enact and uphold laws that protect our environment and quality of life.

The good news is that more and more residents, local elected officials and business leaders are beginning to truly understand the connection between environment, quality of life and economy.  In addition, we are seeing studies done by a wide variety of interest groups that quantify this relationship.  For example, a report released earlier this year by the Florida Realtors determined that when water quality and clarity was good, Lee County’s aggregate property values (between 2010-2013) increased by an estimated $541 million.

The challenge going forward will be to discourage activities that produce short-term economic gain at the expense of the long-term health of our environment and quality of life.  It isn’t about stopping development, but about ensuring that future growth happens in a sustainable manner.  This will require meaningful laws, partnerships with all stakeholders and a long-term vision that recognizes the actions of today will have an impact on our future.  The Conservancy applauds the Sustainability Summit organizers for facilitating the discussion among regional leaders and the Southwest Florida Community Foundation for stepping up to house this urgent initiative.  As one participant succinctly stated – “let’s do something”!

To learn more about the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and our mission to protect Southwest Florida’s water, land wildlife and future visit