Stephen Polasky ’79 on “Conserving while Developing: Natural Capital in South Africa”

Stephen Polasky ’79 is an Ecological/Environmental Economics Professor at the University of Minnesota. Additionally, he is on the Board of Directors and Science Council of The Nature Conservancy as well as the Director of the Natural Capital Project. Polasky spoke at Log Lunch and had a seminar with the Class of 1960s scholars on May 2, 2014.

During his Log Lunch presentation, Polasky spoke about the difficulties and nuances of doing conservation work in a country that was also rapidly developing. He focused his presentation on South Africa, a country that has a great biodiversity of fauna and flora yet also extreme income inequality with a rapidly developing economy. Polasky’s involvement in South Africa has mainly involved sustainable development. The question he posed to the audience, that he also asks himself was: Is it possible to reduce poverty and raise the standard of living while conserving biodiversity and maintaining life support systems? In South Africa, improving the standard of living is a main priority and the government has been making active investments in electricity in housing and in running water. However, increasing the energy consumption in the country inherently threatens the natural environment. The government has been seeking efforts to combine economic development with environmental development.

One attempt at combining the two ides has been through government programs such as “Working for Water,” a program that employs people to clean invasive species that take up the water. The government implemented the program in areas that had both high water stress and high poverty and unemployment. Polasky said that sustainable development boiled down to looking at the impact of economic development and nature. He emphasized that an important step is to talk about how conservation is essential for human well being as well. While there is a larger debate of whether or not conservation should be purely for nature’s sake or for human well being, Polasky said that in the case of South Africa, conservation will only occur if it is in terms of economic development.

By Helen Song ’14