At a dinner party the other night, the conversation turned - as it often does around here these days - to the timber controversy: spotted owls, old-growth trees, loggers.

I commented that surely it was possible to find a reasonable, workable balance between preservation of the forests and wildlife, and preservation of an industry and jobs."That's optimistic," came the sharp reply from a young acquaintance - obviously with a strong environmental bent - across the table.

Funny, I had never before considered believing in reason and balance as necessarily optimistic.

I was thinking of that conversation a few days later when I came across a provocative article called - of all things - "The Green Thumb of Capitalism: The Environmental Benefits of Sustainable Growth."

It was written by - of all people - William K. Reilly, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It appeared in - of all places - Policy Review, the journal of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Reilly begins with the thesis that there's a growing recognition by leaders "that a healthy environment and a healthy economy go together - that in fact, they reinforce each other." Actually, some might call that statement itself somewhat optimistic.

But then Reilly takes another giant step to endorse what he calls "the other side of the coin - the environmental benefits of a prosperous, growing economy."

As Reilly correctly observes: "Many environmentalists remain ambivalent - and some openly suspicious - about many forms of economic growth and development." He notes that some entire industries - offshore oil development, plastics, nuclear energy, surface mining, agribusiness - are viewed as "unnecessary or downright illegitimate" by some environmental activists. He adds:

"These skeptics equate growth with pollution, the cavalier depletion of natural resources, the destruction of natural systems, and - more abstractly - the estrangement of humanity from its roots in nature."

I remembered how similar phrases had flown around that dinner table, along with an admission that environmentalism had become a kind of religion to many adherents - long on faith, short on facts.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Reilly argues persuasively that the ideal goal is to achieve what he calls "sustainable growth - growth consistent with the needs and constraints of nature."

How does economic growth benefit the environment? Reilly's insightful answers to that question deserve careful consideration.

Growth raises people's expectations and creates demands for environmental improvement, he argues. As income levels and living standards rise - and basic needs for food, shelter and clothing are met - people can afford to pay attention to their environment.

For those who still insist that capitalism is the villain in environmental degradation, Reilly says only economic expansion generates the financial resources that make environmental improvements possible.

"Our healthy economy paid for our environmental gains; economic expansion created the capital to finance superior environmental performance," he writes.

That's a fact often overlooked by those eager to blame corporate America for most environmental problems - and a powerful argument to use the next time the dinner-table conversation turns to the question of finding a reasonable balance.

(John Hamer is associate editorial-page editor at The Seattle Times.)