Economic progress continues to be measured as though the social and natural environments were of no consequence. Little account is taken for the manner in which the degradation of the environment subtracts from human welfare and impairs sustainable development. The discipline of economics, and the economic policies sustained by it, has treated the environment as a free good when in fact it is a scarce commodity. It has been made scarce by ignoring the ecological requirements for a sustainable planetary society, running natural wealth down instead of conserving it.
Although high-level government officials have issued many declarations and other resolutions endorsing the concept of sustainable development, in reality little progress has been made in improving collaboration between the environment, health and economic sectors. Despite being strongly endorsed by the Helsinki Conference and in Environmental Health Action Plan for Europe, collaboration with economic sectors has been one of the most difficult areas in the development of National Environmental Health Action Plans (NEHAPs) in most countries. The various sectors of the economy ought to see the environment and health sectors as the most important partners in attaining the objectives of sustainable development. Conversely, unless economic sectors are mobilized as key partners in implementing NEHAPs, the environment and health sectors will make little progress towards their objectives. What is needed is to demonstrate that sound environmental health policies complement and support overall socioeconomic development.
The compatibility of environmental and economic objectives tends to be lost in the competitive pursuit of individual or group gains, with little regard to the impact on others, with a blind faith in science's ability to find solutions, and in ignorance of the distant consequences of today's decisions, especially for future generations.
Economics has a substantive role to play in environmental reconstruction, although many incorrectly see economics as the agent of destruction and not a saviour. It is in economic thinking that solutions to environmental problems are to be found. Economics is not the enemy of the environment. Poor economics is. By manipulating markets, by demonstrating the economic value of natural resources, by altering the way in which economic progress is monitored, there is a real possibility of developing an agenda for development with conservation.