Greg The American way of life remains

Greg Brecht          A large proportion of corporate managers have a vested interest in unsustainability. The scarcer a commodity gets, the more the law of supply and demand operates and the greater the potential for profit. The notion of “sustainability” is going to be hard for believers in the free market to grasp. That an important resource should be managed so as to assure a continuous supply into the future is an alien concept to people whose focus is profitability and whose time frame is three to five years.  If you believe in planned obsolescence, sustainability is a weird proposition. The idea that fossil fuels might be left in the ground in favor of renewables, even if fossil fuels might be cheaper at the moment is seen as more than weird. It’s seen as close to insanity. This and other ideas about sustainability are often seen as subversive and a typical response is that environmental concerns are simply Marxism cloaked in green, determined to destroy the free market system.          The best definition of sustainability is from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development: “…sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  For the concept to mean anything, it has to be in a global context. It might be possible to maintain an American lifestyle for a long time by accessing resources using economic and military muscle.           The American way of life remains aspirational for much of the world. The problem is that if all the world’s people were to live at an American average, we would need the resources of somewhere between four and five more planets. It really is an impossible dream. It’s important to note that growth and development are not the same thing. Growth without development guarantees impoverishment. Development without growth can mean simply more effective ways of managing resources, such as recycling and developing sustainable practices.          The world human population hit 7.6 billion at the end of 2017, and will reach 11.8 billion at century’s end. The rate of increase is actually in a long, steady decline. The 20th century saw a quadrupling of the human population, but it will not even double in the 21st century, which is good news. The bad news is that the increase will still be very large, and we may expect aspirations to expand.           Part of the problem is the maldistribution of natural resources. While a billion people have no access to clean drinking water, Americans use 160 gallons a day, with a quarter of that good water being used to flush toilets. That is an obvious extravagance on the part of Americans, but with the best will in the world, there is no way to get the surplus of potable water from America to areas with no access to good water. Cutting our wasteful habits would be a gesture to the rest of the world, but the idealism that would require is in short supply.          A huge problem in reaching sustainability is that there is so little awareness of interconnectivity. A forest owned by an international corporation might be clear cut to cash in on its commodity value, with no interest in the forest’s interlocking connectedness with the regional natural and social environment. Clear cutting leads to erosion, which can affect stream flow to the point of flooding, reduce or eliminate fishing resources and pollute water. Clear cutting a forest can make perfect economic sense, if the consequences are seen as other peoples’ problems. The dull economic term for this is “externalities.” Until we reform the terms of economic analysis, true sustainability is going to be difficult to reach.          The problem can be partly solved with technology, and human creativity can be relied on to devise means of solving problems. But creativity doesn’t do much for problems created by values and behaviors. Sharply cutting the consumption of meat would cut deeply into agricultural pollution and free up grains for human consumption, for example, but that will not happen so long as meat is a mark of the good life. We need basic changes in values and behaviors.        “Husbanding” is a word rarely seen, but it has relevance. The word might be a little suspect as sounding somewhat patriarchal, but the principle is sustainability. When “husbanding” was a common term, it meant frugal management. Long ago farm families managed their land and resources not only to maximize yield, but also to sustain that yield year after year. Sustainability is really the same as husbandry. Using the world’s resources in a way that will sustain those resources both for the present and into the future will require husbanding resources for the whole human family.