Our current economic projection which focuses on extraction and drawing down of resources without concern for planetary limits is unsustainable. From an environmental and social perspective we can’t continue with exponential growth on a finite planet.
How then do we shift towards a more sustainable economy – one that considers people, the environment and the economy as an integral part of planetary living?
Here are 10 ways to make the shift towards a sustainable economy:
Our economy focuses on import/export to maintain levels of economic growth. Valuable resources in third-world countries are exported to wealthier ones at the expense of local social and environmental models. Globalization has resulted in us losing our sense of place in the world. Relocalization, with a focus on cooperatives and worker-run businesses that take into account the environment would result in a more sustainable economic system.
2. Use open source information
We live in an interconnected age – a time where any and all information is accessible at the click of a button. We can use the internet and social media to help spread the use of valuable information to enable us transition to a more sustainable economy.
3. Don’t overuse resources
Living locally, we shouldn’t need to spend huge amounts of energy on excessive resources. We can instead use what we need to live well so that we don’t draw down too many resources, thereby putting undue strain on the environment. Deforestation and industrial fishing are examples of putting excessive strain on the environment by exploiting resources for profit. We all have the right to clean air, water and non-toxic food – we don’t need excessive resources to satisfy such basic needs.
4. Remain in harmony with the environment
An economic system that’s out of balance with the environment creates negative feedback loops. Our economic system is built on separation – separation from each other and separation from our environment. Conversely, a more connected and integrated economic system is aligned with environmental and social feedback loops. A consciously aligned economic and environmental system would inevitably result in more sustainable outcomes over the long-term.
5. Stop pollution
As mentioned in point 3 above, we all have the right to clean air, water and soil. To pollute these basic systems puts into jeopardy our very existence. For example, excessively burning fossil fuels pollutes our air and warms the planet. Similarly, using too many chemical fertilizers to grow crops pollutes our soil and water. All these systems are inter-connected; to pollute one has negative effects on other systems. By polluting our rivers, which all eventually run into the sea, we contribute to ocean acidification. Heavy taxes or penalties should be enforced on companies who pollute and don’t take responsibility for their waste.
6. Enhance closed-loop systems
Our current economy doesn’t consider the impact of waste on the environment. When most products reach the end of their life-cycle they either end up in landfills (which contributes 20% more toxins to the environment than carbon emissions) or in our oceans. If companies want to make the shift to a sustainable economy they’ll need to take responsibility, not only for reducing energy inputs, but also for recycling waste. By closing the loop and recycling waste into new products, companies immediately give themselves a competitive advantage.
7. Capture and store energy
There are numerous ways to capture and store energy. Technology is advancing at a rapid rate, with more efficient products entering the market consistently. These innovations – none more so recently than the Tesla powerwall battery, will change the way the world uses energy. Capturing the sun’s energy with solar panels to be converted into electricity is a decentralizing technological innovation. On a smaller scale, capturing rainwater off your roof can be used either for your garden or your morning shower. At a macro level companies are capturing excess carbon to be recycled and reused in their production lines.
8. Integrate diversity
Diversity, if well integrated, can become a useful allie in the transition to a sustainable economy. Different cultures, local traditions and indigenous knowledge are all valuable aspects of diversity. Such cultures, with their inherent link to land and place can lead the way in adjusting to more ecological ways of doing business. Here’s an article outlining diverse grassroots movements changing our view of the world. Similarly, a local forest has multi-layered diversity. A mature forest functions well because of its ability to integrate diversity. All parts of the system work for the greater good of the whole. Diversity not integrated results in chaos, imbalance and inequality. However, integrate diversity at every level of growth and you can create sustainable economic development.
9. Turn waste into a resource
There’s no better exponent of turning waste into a resource than the earthworm. The earthworm enriches soil by converting organic matter into nutrients for plants and animals. What can we learn from the earth worm? Waste nothing. Instead of letting grey water clog our sewage system, why not divert it into our gardens (if we use biodegradable soaps), for example? A company in South Africa is using the Black Soldier Fly to turn human faecal waste into valuable products like compost, animal feed and biodiesel. This example of closed-loop recycling turns waste into a resource. Innovation, technology and design has a crucial role to play in helping companies convert waste into valuable products.
10. Don’t oversupply
We have an oversupply of oil, coal, labor and other capital. Oversupply puts unnecessary strain on our environment and signals we are reaching what’s been dubbed as Limits to Growth. What does this mean? Essentially it means we have to work harder for less. If for example, we try to grow our economy at 4% per annum for 40 years, we would have to essentially almost double the amount of energy we use to keep pace with development. Take into consideration that on top of this we are reaching peak oil (where it takes more energy and capital to exploit oil in risky environments eg. arctic drilling or the tar sands), as well as overburdened amounts debt (peak debt) and you arrive at a tipping point. To continue to oversupply resources and other capital in the name of growth would be suicidal.
To create an economy that’s more sustainable – environmentally, socially, and economically – we need to become more aware of how our business models define our actions at every level.
image: Neil Kremer