Monday, February 18, 2008

What is Sustainability? A Primer for Skeptics

Guest Perspective/Roy Morrison

The 21st century world is threatened by the apparently insatiable appetite of industrial civilization for evermore and haunted by the specter of sustainability.

What is sustainability, this rough beast its hour come round at last? Shall we fear or embrace sustainability?

Sustainability, skeptics may argue, is another manifestation of the hand of the state and its bureaucrats limiting economic freedom. Sustainability is reputed to be little more than a new brand of prior restraint upon freedom and prosperity.

Freedom decisively prevailed in 1989 as the Red flag was lowered from the Kremlin and the Soviet empire collapsed of its own tyrannical weight. Yet less than 20 years later, for some, sustainability rises to endanger freedom, casting sticky webs of rules and regs, snaring the grand entrepreneurial impulse, stifling economic growth essential for alleviating poverty, building stable democracies and secure middle classes. The march of West as global standard for industrial civilization is threatened by sustainability.

"What do you want, fish or jobs?" The answer for the Club for Growth, the Bush administration, and the American Enterprise Institute has been clear: choosing the health of the living world, the biosphere over jobs is an unaffordable case of sentimentality by the already comfortable to the detriment of the poor and middle classes. Sustainability disrupts the magic of creative destruction from uninhibited market means.

The Club for Growth writes of conservative John McCain, “...the Arizona maverick took a another swing at the free market with the Climate Stewardship Act, a bill he sponsored with Joe Lieberman (D-CT) to require greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced to 2000 levels by the year 2010.”

But, in fact, sustainability is as American as apple pie -- as American as our quadrennial presidential follies, as American as the self-serving sound bites of polluters heaping scorn upon any changes to pollution and business-as- usual.

Sustainability is concerned with social health, prosperity, and prudent conduct. It's not a foreign doctrine. Jefferson wrote to Madison :

Then I say the earth belongs to each...generation during its course, fully and in its own right. The second generation receives it clear of the debts and encumbrances, the third of the second, and so on. For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation. Then, no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.

In response to the question of: "Fish or jobs?" sustainability replies: “Both fish and jobs." Sustainability recognizes that by catching or poisoning all the fish there would be no jobs.

Sustainability is not a bureaucratic writ for limitation.

Sustainability, in practice, is simply making economic growth mean ecological improvement, not ecological destruction. Sustainability means assuring the future of economic growth by making decreasing pollution mean increasing profits, and increasing pollution mean decreasing profits.

Sustainability rejects the poisoned and the improvident and celebrates thriving growth. Sustainability embraces the innovative high profit centers of the 21st century information economy in all its guises, given the effective practice of an industrial ecology What limits are there to the trade in software, data, communications, financial products and services, and entertainment in a dematerialized and ecologically sound economy?

Sustainability means establishing market rules and ecological consumption taxes that send accurate price signals, that make prices for goods and services reflect true costs of pollution, depletion, and ecological damage.

Sustainability means:

· A healthy and vigorous biosphere;

· A science and business model of growth, relationship, and balance.

· Peace between first nature, the biosphere, and second nature, the social sphere which is inseparable, of course, from the biosphere.

· The growth of freedom, not its stifling;

· Economic activity and the price system being able to reflect, account for; and satisfy the triple bottom line of the economic, the ecological, and the social;

· The long-term maximization of economic activity, not its limitation;

· Replacing income taxation with ecological consumption taxes;

· The growth, maximization and democratization of market capitalization and profit, not its minimization;

· An industrial ecology of zero harmful omissions and the use of the "waste" from one process as the input for another;

· A world powered by renewable energy;

· The convergence and co-evolution of self-regulating biosphere and social sphere maintaining a dynamic balance or homeostasis;

Sustainability is the practice of both change and balance, of self-organization and evolution, and of equilibrium or homeostasis. Sustainability is the adaptation of life and biosphere to circumstances, which means to all influences.

Sustainability is the co-evolution of life and the earth, the earth changing organisms and organisms changing the earth.

Sustainability means the transformation of industrial to an ecological civilization.

Sustainability is an essential 21st century credo for entrepreneurs, for making fortunes, eliminating poverty, and building vibrant ecological democracies around the world.

Sustainability is a science and practice of change and growth, not of stasis and contraction. It embraces change conditioned by self regulating feedback mechanisms that nurtures the health, prospects and dynamic balance of both biosphere and social sphere.

Sustainability means the practice of both freedom and community with the understanding that without freedom, community becomes tyranny, and without community freedom tends toward self-destructive license.

Sustainability means the practice of both a consequentialist and a deontological ethics, meaning the embrace of both results and principles, and includes as guide to an enlightened self-interest a New Golden Rule: Do onto the earth as you would have the earth do onto us.

Sustainability rests upon a principled pragmatism, an awareness that our actions have consequences and we must adjust laws and market rules as necessary for the health of the biosphere and social sphere.

For the 21st century, sustainability is a new guide for the practice of entrepreneurship and democracy, a product of change and conservation, a gate for creative imagining, the realization of our dreams, and for the wealth and prosperity of the generations to come. Sustainability is the 21st century path to peace and justice and prosperity.

Sustainability walks in the shoes of the founders, with the inventiveness and practicality of Franklin , the radical clarity of Payne, the philosophical dextrousnesses of Jefferson, the fiscal acumen of Hamilton , the resolute commitment and courage of Washington . Sustainability is American as apple pie. It is not the spectral rise of a vanquished foreign doctrine.

Sustainability is another chapter in the book of American democracy and freedom. Sustainability is a practical expression in the 21st century of the motto of American freedom and community, a motto held in the mouth of the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States : E. Pluribus Unum. From Many, One.

Roy Morrison is Director of the Office for Sustainability at Southern New Hampshire University. His next book forthcoming is Markets, Democracy & Survival. for downloads and review copies.

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