For most of my life I have watched our natural environment being destroyed with little to nothing of substance being done to halt that destruction. Since I first became aware and sensitive to the negative direction we (humanity) were headed, I have asked myself the same questions again and again. Why isn’t anyone trying to stop this insanity? Do people not realize where this is going? It has been approximately 40 years since the first real wave of environmentally conscious proponents started to voice their concerns. For the first time, issues such as diminishing bio-diversity, pollution of the biosphere, the over-use of global resources, and an exploding population were being discussed by small but educated groups. These efforts brought to light the concerns we are all now facing with ominous anticipation, and it seems that this message is just starting to seep through into the greater population. The reason for this is simple: Economics.
Energy prices are up. Food costs are soaring. The world economy is sitting on the edge of a financial abyss as commodity prices increase steadily, a direct result of diminishing resources and accelerating demand. These basic principles that guide market pricing are now setting the stage for an unprecedented collapse of regional economies and an end to our shared global dream of endless prosperity. It turns out; we will not be able to afford that prosperous future if we continue along this path. As a colleague of mine said, “Anyone who thinks you can have continuous quarterly growth of production forever in a world of finite resources is either a lunatic or an economist”. Yet, this has become the guiding principle of corporate capitalist philosophy in a religion based on ROI (Return On Investment) and never disappointing the investor. We have cleverly cornered ourselves into this untenable position by following an economic doctrine that leaves little or no room to allow for the far reaching adjustments required to counter these destructive trends.
For the consumer, home-owner, and business person there are hard choices. Do I do what is right for the planet and pay a huge premium, or do I make my money go further and ignore the costs to the environment? For corporations the choices become central to their ability to survive. There is a constant struggle to create a positive public persona based on being socially responsible, balanced by the unrelenting pressure to create ever-expanding profits. For that reason, corporations will spend millions of dollars to build a green image, when in actuality they are doing next to nothing to confront their fundamental issues of operating in a completely unsustainable manner. They use the very word “Sustainable” as a way to twist public opinion and perspective of their companies in a way that is completely opposite to the reality of how they conduct their operations. The results are clear. Nothing gets done till it makes financial sense to do it.
This brings us to the question of how are we going to bridge this chasm? My company Energime is of the clear opinion that sustainability will never be achieved unless the solution is directly entwined into a system of economic expansion. The solution needs to be just as endemic as the problem. It is not enough that your community or business be carbon neutral and manage its long term needs separate from the rest of the world. It is essential that these benefits are shared and expanded. You must create sustainable infrastructure that has excess capacity as to spill over those benefits into the surrounding and connected general communities. Without this approach, whatever you would create would come under the pressure and demands from those surrounding populations as their support systems started to collapse. No one wants to neither imagine nor live in that world dominated by high walls and fiercely defended borders. These efforts must also be supported by education, training, local empowerment, and a philosophy of collaborative effort based on mutually shared benefits. In addition, re-establishing local sustainable balance must not be an excuse to further expand the population. This is a situation that would eventually lead back to these same issues further down the line, serving only as a temporary fix.
These challenges, on a global scale, are somewhat unique to this time in history. It still amazes me that in the United States, I continuously see economists evaluating our current economic turmoil and then offering solutions by drawing comparisons to what was done to counter recessions after WW2. This was an era when the U.S. was the lone remaining global industrial power and controlled more than half the world’s output. Others site how President Reagan handled getting out of an economic downturn in the 1980’s with “Reaganomics”. They demonstrate little understanding how that prosperity was driven by unsustainable over production as a result of cheap fuel prices (a lesson the Chinese will soon learn in regards to cheap labor). It never seems to occur to them that the fundamental issues which frame our current situation are based on the excessive over-borrowing we have leveraged against expected future production. In this way, we have created a strategy that enslaves our corporations to the concept of having to continuously create larger profits in order to justify and pay for those loans, and to satisfy the unrealistic expectations of the investment world. This becomes a huge issue when future prospects appear to suggest that affordable global production in the next few decades will no longer being able to keep up with increasing demand.
To even mention this is sacrilege to hard core capitalists who will not even entertain an idea that calls into question these basic guiding principles. This concept challenges years of well learned educational indoctrination. They are somewhat incapable of thinking outside their structured box as they have never entertained the concept, nor will they accept as a premise, that there are potential limitations on growth as a result of diminishing supply. That is what makes this era, this challenge, this crisis, fundamentally different than any we have faced before. Mankind is now faced with a new age that must be defined by increases in efficiency and vastly improved management of our remaining resources.
To change directions our fixation on ROI must be now be balanced out by a new economic imperative I refer to as LES, or (Long-term Economic Sustainability) if we are to prosper. In order to establish this new more efficient economy there needs to be a clear focus on the specific kinds of industries we support. Efforts have to be enacted that advance the development of infrastructure and the redefining of consumer trends. These strategies must be geared towards that which can be harvested or produced sustainably while reducing operational costs. In addition, we must also support the technologies that help improve industry and agriculture by reuse, recycling, and maximizing efficiency based on sustainable balance. This is necessary to avoid adversely impacting our remaining natural resources. The key is funding this effort. You have to attract investment capital, and as I alluded to earlier, that will not happen until it is sufficiently profitable.
This requires an approach that focuses on creating solutions in a tiered build out, solving the issues that initially create the greatest profit and that also provide valuable fungible assets. This is essential so these assets may be then be leveraged to fund those subsequent efforts that are necessary for our long term survival but may have longer ROI‟s. To take a hap-hazard approach to so-called sustainable projects without a complete strategy for development is to almost guarantee failure. An example of this is the fact that we are currently funding a disproportionate effort to develop industries based on solving our energy issues (which has potentially higher profitability). We do this as opposed to directly cleaning up the environment, or providing the nutritious food and clean water which is needed and in increasingly short supply around the world. Though well intended, this has encouraged technologies that create energy, but are actually bad for our environment and unsustainable, such as burning garbage (which can be recycled) for energy, and using agricultural assets for bio-fuel production. While these industries may provide the benefit of creating energy, these processes also diminish our capacity to grow food, contribute to our environmental issues with the pollution they create, and add to the destruction of global bio-diversity causing more long term problems than they solve.
An option that directly addresses this issue is ISD (Integrated Sustainable Design), which bundles sustainable technologies together in an effort to increase production efficiencies and create larger profits faster. With this strategy you take a comprehensive approach to evaluating the total needs of that business, community, region etc…by designing a solution that looks at sustainability as a complete system. You are essentially linking more profitable applications to those less profitable efforts that need to be established for local populations to regain their sustainable balance. The idea from a business perspective is to create a platform attractive to investors by substantially reducing the ROI on these projects.
The importance of these enacting these approaches is that we are running out of time. Soon we will be at a crisis stage, lacking sufficient supplies of most of the resources we need to feed our population and power our industries. This will trigger a redirection of personal and business assets towards acquiring these commodities at increased price levels thus removing the excess investment monies needed to fund this build out. To keep on our current course will almost certainly insure a future where the divide between those who have, and those that have not leads to a full blown global crisis. This will not turn out well for anyone.
The hallmarks of our new economy must be based on a much higher and integrated, cooperative approach to global resource management and technology development. Education and regional empowerment must no longer be considered advantages for those who can afford them, or socio-economic bargaining chips with which we hold countries hostage. A core consideration when measuring profitability must forever be the societal costs and/or advantages that result from those business decisions. This is going to be a hard sell to died-in-the-wool capitalists who view business as a competitive battle field, see short term economic profitability as their only real goal, and consider the concept of people, cultures, and governments working together to improve the world as naïve idealism. Unless we can make it profitable for them in the short run, there will not be a long run for our children.