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Jill M. Watkins: A fair bottom line

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Whether we realize it or not, right now we're seeing what happens when one leg of the Triple Bottom Line is broken. We all understand a company's "bottom line." Indeed, Freedom Industries must be well aware of this common business phrase. But when we only consider the financial bottom line in decision-making (Economy), we leave the other two legs of Equity and Environment potentially damaged.

Economy, Equity and Environment -- the "three Es" -- make up the Triple Bottom Line. Also think of it as the "three Ps": Profit, People, Planet.

We're sold different stories regarding what our priorities should be. One, we're told that our state's economy (read: jobs) trumps equity and environment. We make sure that industry and corporations do not face strong regulations because regulations kill jobs. And even when regulations are in place, we do what we can to not enforce them, to ease the burden on business and not affect jobs.

Two, we're told that these are good jobs (equitable), even though many are physically hard and potentially life-threatening. Jobs in natural resource extraction might pay well in the short-term, but will cost more later in health care, weakening pensions, lack of necessary education and environmental cleanups. (This doesn't even address the fact that we're extracting non-renewable resources and that the transition to renewable energy, as opposed to "alternative" energy, is one path to equitable jobs.)

Three, we tout the beautiful environment of our state in order to promote tourism, hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and other outdoor lifestyles. These activities cross all economic classes, political divides and religious beliefs. Love of the great outdoors is something we all share, something we all have in common.

Each of these three areas make up how we see our state, and our strong feelings about it, but any one of these cannot take precedence over the other. Can we have a strong economy without consideration of equity (justice and fairness) or the natural environment? Can we have equity without a diverse economy or a healthy environment that feeds us, nurtures us and makes us who we are as West Virginians? Can we protect our natural environment without an equity that ingrains a sense of stewardship in us or an economy that respects the complexity of ecosystems? Ultimately, the answer is no.

So if that's the case, then how do we go about joining these three seemingly separate priorities? A couple ideas:

1. View ourselves as part of the whole. We humans have tried to separate ourselves from nature. We believe that we have dominion over nature, that we are not savages like the animals, and that nature is to be either controlled or feared.

"According to Gerould S. Wilhelm, there were at one time more than 260 different Native American languages spoken in North America, and not a single one of them contained a word for nature. This is simply because these cultures did not conceive themselves as disconnected from natural systems; nature as a separate and distinct concept did not exist," says the book "The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building" by 7group and Bill G. Reed. We are part of nature.

2. Embrace systems thinking. Nature itself functions as a system, so if we see ourselves as integral to this system, we'll be successful when looking at our actions, our projects, and our lifestyles as part of it. This might sound like too large a responsibility to take on for everyday tasks, and too expensive. But systems thinking might have prevented approval of a water treatment plant downstream of an existing chemical storage facility, and the cleanup costs, not to mention the costs to health and public trust, are far greater now than the planning costs would have been. On an individual level, choosing to recycle all those plastic water bottles rather than put them in a landfill is a simple, no-cost choice that also takes the system of materials and waste into consideration.

Some people see participating in this overarching concept of sustainability as having to sacrifice something for the sake of the planet, or that we have to choose between jobs and the forests, between mountains and fairness, between justice and progress, but this is simply not the case. By making sure our choices adhere to the Triple Bottom Line of Economy, Equity and Environment, we are assured of having an abundance of all three.

Watkins, of South Charleston, is principal of Watkins Design Works, a commercial interior design and green building consulting firm in Charleston.


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