The Synergy of Ecology and Economy

Although related in origin, the words “ecology” and “economy” evoke contrary emotions. But they need not do so: after a major catastrophe, a small Island in the Sea of Calms showed the way to reconcile the two concepts for the joint benefit of all its inhabitants. This success can be replicated by others, by benefitting from the ocean environment, culture and tradition. The positive linkages between the UN sustainable development goals (“SDG’s”) can be used as a tool to further identify some of the synergies between ecology and economy.

The Greeks

Close your eyes and repeat slowly after me: “ecology” and “economy”. While the first term allows soft, dreamy images of blue oceans, green pastures, tranquility and harmony, the second term starkly suggests images of sweatshops, smokestacks and Scrooge McDuck. But this was not always the case. These words started out as Greek twins: the first meaning the studying of the “household” and the second the management of it. Both went together as one logically drove the other; it made sense to first study the environment and then manage it accordingly. And it still does, as was proven ten years ago by a town on an island on the Sea of Calms.

The town on the Island

The town of La Restiga on El Hierro island was a thriving small-scale fishing community on the Sea of Calms, when in 2011 catastrophe struck: severe underwater eruptions and earthquakes in its marine park forced the town to evacuate. All business (and other) activity was banned for over 6 months. The majority of marine life in the park was destroyed. But after the initial shocks, the town, its ecology and economy were rebuilt by an inclusive strategy. It used its marine park, culture and tradition as platforms to create synergies. It protected the park and built a more diversified local economy by adding related activities and enterprises to the fisheries, while maintaining the local culture and tradition. The restoration of ecology and economy went hand-in-hand, without one dominating the other. It created synergy by promoting specialized competencies of its participants (such as marine-conservationists, fisheries, scuba-divers, and tourism-, hotel- and restaurant-operators) as well as good and strong relations between them. It fostered relationships and interactions that enabled local people as well as newcomers to sort out differences and pull together. This made it easier to find common ground and win-win opportunities. It improved governability and led to speedy recovery. La Restiga now thrives thanks to the synergy of ecology and economy.

The UN SDG’s as a synergy tool

La Restiga is not a one-off. Other island communities, like Bonaire, can use their marine park, culture and tradition as platforms for synergy to build more diversified economies. But economic growth must be decoupled from environmental degradation. Rather, the two must become mutually supportive to achieve synergies. 

One approach to achieve this may be to look for policies and investments that link United Nations SDG’s. Policies and investments directed at building resilient sustainable agriculture (SDG 2), water and sanitation (SDG 6), energy (SDG 7), infrastructure (SDG 9), housing and construction (SDG 11) as well as sustainable production and consumption patterns (SDG 12), that can be linked to climate protection (SDG 13), and protection of the aquatic (SDG 14) and terrestrial (SDG 15) ecosystems. These would be policies to promote economic development around the marine environment, culture and tradition, that also facilitate these sustainable development goals. 

Examples of Ecology and Economy

Examples abound. Policies based on the synergy of ecology and economy may include those to attract environmentally low-impact, internet-based service providers interested in nature and culture, such as “digital nomads” or other such long-distance workers or learners. 

Or policies to invest in road-infrastructure to enhance transport to culturally interesting sites or – events or nature preserves, while protecting the environment against run-off caused by dirt roads or badly maintained roads. Or to integrate decentralized clean energy systems and sustainable water-production and water-purification plants in order to protect the marine ecosystems when promoting eco-tourism, eco-hospitality or creating cultural venues. Or to invest in water-retention and water-management infrastructure to stimulate local agriculture (including traditional produce) and greater food-independence. 

Yet other examples may be policies to promote greater circularity in the economy through improved waste management techniques or to introduce sustainable construction methods in infrastructure and housing. Examples are not hard to find. One only has to look through the Greek lens.