BOOKS/Jules Siegel

Restoration Economy

In The Restoration Economy: The Greatest New Growth Frontier [Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco] Storm Cunningham considers the economic potential of a little-noticed but immense new phenomenon: restoration of environmentally damaged sites and infrastructure, which he reports is now a trillion-dollar global business. He lays out an intriguing panorama of business and investment opportunities. I like this. How can environmentalism fail if it's driven by greed and has a brand-new name that doesn't frighten the Religious Right?

To be fair, restoration is not really a new name for environmentalism. As Cunningham documents in some &emdash; maybe many &emdash; cases fixing things up can cause toxic side effects. Mitigation facelifts, such as planting grass over deposits of poisons left over from mining operations, are harmful in the sense that they divert public attention from the continuing danger. Nor is restoration entirely acceptable to many conservationists and "forever-wild" environmentalists, who mainly aim to protect existing natural resources, not fix up damaged ones.

These activists tend to insist on a definition of forever wild based on what they believe things were like before humans started messing with them. But humans have managed surprisingly vast areas of the planet since the dawn of time. Cunningham reports increasing evidence that "Native American populations were far larger than originally thought, and that they actively managed most American ecosystems to maximize game animal populations."

Some ecologists claim that the great American prairies and the Amazon basin are partially human artifacts, he says. As these pre-Columbian managed ecosystems appear to have been healthier, more productive and more diverse than they are today, we may have to find out how the Native Americans did it, Cunningham writes. Judicious use of fire will be applicable, he says, but driving herds of bison over cliffs will not be.

Terms such as conservation, sustainable development, ecology and environmental protection seem to bring out the doctrinaire &emdash; when they don't put people to sleep. The underlying controversies &emdash; and, clearly, bitterness &emdash; are close to the surface on every page of this book. The tragedy of the industrial brownfields &emdash; industrial and commercial zones that have collapsed and been abandoned, often heavily contaminated &emdash; is not lightened by the new opportunities they offer for restorative development. In an especially horrifying chapter, Cunningham examines the way the vast destruction of modern warfare has created an almost equally vast restoration industry.

Cunningham is hardly a literary giant, but his delight in his thesis is catching. The wealth of anecdotes, direct quotations from telling sources and mega-digit statistics can be decidedly overwhelming, but also tantalizing. Exactly how did the Native Americans and Amazonians create the Great Plains and the Amazonian jungle, for example? In his zeal to be comprehensive, the author often leaves you wishing for more details. Fortunately, an extensive bibliography and resource guide point out directions for finding them.

The lesson of the '90s was that you couldn't maintain stable prosperity solely on wine, cheese and ferns. Building prisons is a limited way of supplying pork. Development of new housing is always economically stimulating, but this, too, has many natural and artificial political and financial limits. Restoration and restorational development thrive on a built-in psychological motor that would seem to be infinite. People hate ugliness and waste, and they love fixing things up. If they can get paid for this &emdash; indeed, get rich &emdash; not even the Teamsters and Bush & Co. combined are going to be able to stand in the way.

Although The Restoration Economy often reads a bit like an enthusiastic Chamber of Commerce action statement, Cunningham is very persuasive in making his case. Hardly a Pollyanna, he examines some of the very depressing restoration failures, as well as its successes, most of which have taken place on a relatively small scale. In general, the book has a refreshingly positive spirit. If he's right, this is not going to be a repeat of the bubble, but a watershed change in economic policy that could provide all the growth of the '50s housing and new development boom, but for generations to come.

Storm Cunningham generously acknowledges the inspiration of people such as Paul Hawkens and Stewart Brand, among other giants, but The Restoration Economy is a unique work that pulls together enormously diverse and often seemingly unrelated trends to create its own special worldview.

The Restoration Economy: The Greatest New Growth Frontier

By Storm Cunningham.

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco (

300 pages, $29.95

Jules Siegel's writings on cutting-edge social issues have appeared in Playboy, Rolling Stone, Village Voice and many other publications.

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