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The Myth of Sustainability

We are hearing references to “sustainability” on an almost daily basis now. In Western New York we have “sustainable” economic development conversations, proposals, and a growing body of events purporting to move our region forward. We would like to believe that most of these are well intentioned efforts, but we have a perspective that some are following the worn path of contrived misdirection, insincere strategery, or worse, a disinformation campaign designed to raid the public coffers. Shocking.

Clearly, the new “sustainability” wordsmiths are trying to put lipstick on the elephant in the room—a profound and consequential lack of understanding of what sustainability means and how it works.

Sustainability is not a just public relations vehicle designed to promote economic development schemes. Sustainability is a complex concept that is deep in philosophy and science. In its most fundamental context, sustainability characterizes the relationships between three core concerns: culture, economics, and society. These are immutable relationships that are deeply consequential. People that understand sustainability know that the real bottom line is the environment. Learning sustainability means understanding that nature will have the final say. If we do not respect that, future generations will find their quality of life to be in perpetual decline.

This exclusive focus on economic growth delivers a total mischaracterization of how to build the road to a sustainable future. All economic growth and GDP are based on a consumer paradigm that promotes profit above all other factors. The environment and social costs are methodically characterized as “externalities” to profit. In this context, sustainability is a myth.

These accounting “externalities” have allowed the real costs to environment and culture such as human health care, consequences of poverty including failed education, crime, civil unrest, declining wages, increased costs and decreased value of earned benefits that we now describe as “entitlements,” and environmental evisceration to be subordinate to profit, growth, and GDP. The real costs are imposed upon society as we try to stave off the ravages of climate change, pollution, human health, loss of the middle class, and social instability. Sustainable growth, in this context, is an oxymoron.

Measuring growth with dystopian externality

Our political economic strategies are deliberate and “sustained” by what Adam Smith called the “invisible hand” of the free market. He said that this is a force guided by self-interest. Unfortunately that force is guided by those at the top of the economic ladder.

Today more than 99 percemt of the world’s wealth is controlled by less than one percent of the world’s people, and that divide is continuing to expand everyday, including today.

According to recent reports from the US Federal Reserve, business profit margins have hit an all-time high while wages have hit an all-time low.

These substantial economic costs categorized as externalities protect profit and growth and trickle down to the 99 percent.

The externality factor distorts our economic fundamentals and promotes poverty and destruction of biodiversity, the underpinning of life that makes Earth unique.

Instead of commodity values, we know through science and ecological economic measurements that ecosystem values including cleaning and stabilizing the atmosphere, filtering drinking water, and protecting biodiversity are more valuable than most development including sprawl. We know that the value of a wetland is quantifiably more than that of a parking lot, an intact forest or meadow ecosystem is more valuable than industrial agriculture and the value of the ocean is more than as a profit-protecting dump for pollution. Immediate returns such as the promise of increased taxes or a few jobs are carrots on a stick that do not reflect longer term realities. Externalizing the costs of destroying ecosystems in return for short-term cash robs our planet of a sustainable future.

Ecological economics experts have conservatively characterized the value of ecosystem services by establishing that an intact ecosystem is worth at 1,000 percent more than a developed site. Every square foot of nature that we loose to “economic development” schemes is a nail in the coffin of a sustainable future.

David Suzuki calls characterizing the costs to the environment as externalities as a form of brain damage. Shouldn’t we look at this differently?

War and peace

Fundamental economic hegemony drives political and cultural disagreements. War has driven economic “progress” for centuries. Contemporary global disaster capitalism enabled by the shocks of war, destabilization, and imposed austerity fraud are economic policies decided by the invisible hands of the free market. Sustainability is not possible without peace.

The costs of climate change

We are confronted by a global emergency. We need to act appropriately.

Climate change is a great catastrophe facing our planet. It is transforming every facet of our lives. The fact that the environment has been contextualized as an externality by anthropocentric economic politics is the greatest failure of the free market. Real economic costs of the damages of climate change will continue to include disaster oriented physical infrastructure loss, cyclic rebuilding, increased social instability, and the costs of human life and health. The overall costs of climate change in the next decade alone may exceed the total value of global GDP.

There are things that we can do. Investing in green infrastructure, including adapting biodiversity modeling in urban development, conservation of energy rather than expanding consumption, waging peace, land-use reform which includes finding ways to incentivize protecting biodiversity and ecosystems, and promoting a true local economy are strategies that we need to address. These comprehensive contexts should not only be on the local sustainability agenda, but they should be at the top of the list.

If we are to advance beyond a myth of sustainability, we need to identify and defeat the destructive fables around economic growth that colonize and conquer at the expense of social and environmental stability.

Without new strategies, “sustainability” is simply another economic deceit that will trickle down on us until the rains of the collapse of civilization wash us all away into the unstoppable deluge of time. It wont be the first time that earth has made major adjustments.

Jay Burney is founder of the Learning Sustainability Campaign and Greenwatch. Greenwatch provides a forum for discussion of a promotion of community literacy about issues related to ecology, sustainability, and biodiversity. Visit Greenwatch on Facebook.

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