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 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Thought Leader Interview: Gretchen Daily

Australia’s Salty Soil

S+B: What role, if any, do you see for innovation in increasing biodiversity through technological means, preventing ecosystem destruction, or trying to reclaim “dead zones” and bring them back to life?
DAILY: I see a lot of promise. Work on restoration has picked up in the last five years in places like the Florida Everglades and Hawaii. In Australia, the movement for restoration has been led by farmers; it began as a response to Australia’s soil salinity crisis. Australia is a very old continent; it hasn’t been extensively glaciated in more than 80 million years. Its soil is very fragile and not necessarily fertile, and the introduction of European farming practices had devastating consequences. The settlers removed a lot of the forest, and without those trees acting to keep the water table low, it slowly rose up to the surface, carrying with it a lot of naturally occurring salts. It’s now costing hundreds of millions of dollars per year in damage to roads and other infrastructure, in farmland contamination, and in the salinization of water. The tap water in Adelaide is barely drinkable, it’s so laden with salt.

The goal now is to restore the hydrological cycle, draw the water table back down, and let the rain wash the salts out of the rooting zone of crops. The expenses are justified by salinity control alone, but they also confer carbon sequestration, flood control, habitat diversity, and the other benefits that natural forests bring.

Once you reduce the harmful effects, nature can come back — that’s one of the most beautiful and inspiring things about it. We often marvel at how resilient the human spirit is, at least up to a point, in children who have been hurt. And this is also true for nature. There are definitely breaking points, but if you give her a chance, she will come back. You just have to make sure you give her the chance — and that we all give the next generation a chance — before it’s too late.

S+B: Imagine that you were addressing an audience of corporate executives and business school students. Besides what you’ve already said, what would be important for them to hear?
DAILY: I teach in the business school at Stanford now. The MBA students are very sharp, experienced, and ambitious — I found out as a Ph.D. student that you don’t want to play against the MBA soccer team! Many have been working in corporate settings before coming to business school. Now they’re taking on big challenges, including restoration, and their sense of entrepreneurship is paying dividends, in both the ecological and the financial sense.

In the past, there were many lose-lose battles between business and environmentalists over the use of resources, and those battles are still going on, of course. But now many productive partnerships have developed that one couldn’t have previously imagined possible. These partnerships engage new, diverse kinds of leaders, who together are transforming conservation into a deep, global, profitable game-changing arena for business and policy innovation. The result is going to be better corporate investments, more streamlined public policies, and maybe a better chance of achieving both human and natural well-being.

Reprint No. 09408

Author Profile: 

  • Art Kleiner is editor-in-chief of strategy+business and the author of The Age of Heretics (2nd ed., Jossey-Bass, 2008).
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