Saturday, December 26, 2009

More Thoughts Popping In For a Mo'

A childhood friend is a sustainability consultant, I noticed recently. My friend and officemate's sister is in the joint business-Natural Resources program at University of Michigan. There are many arguments for why and how corporations must be involved in sustainability, and indeed they must be. However, I do not think they will like it--I can see no way that sustainability can be achieved without lowering consumption. From my time at a Fortune 500 company, I saw that their goals year-on-year were not just growth of the company, but increased rate of growth. That is, "This year we grew 5%; next year's goal is to grow 7% with a 'stretch goal' of 9%." As a recovering engineer, I thought this odd, as something growing at increasing rates is often called an explosion, and is to be avoided. And in any case, since I do think we are consuming much, much more than is sustainable, the only remedy for that is to consume less. Efficiency is not going to get us there -- we'll just be consuming too much more efficiently. Especially since efficiency gains are almost always overtaken by overall increases in consumption. If you increase efficiency by 5% but sell 10% more products, well, you've done pretty much nothing for sustainability.

I don't see any consultancies or other very market/business-oriented advice figuring out sustainable ways to decrease consumption--here I mean economic sustainability. I'm sure it can be done, but this is the challenge before us, at least those most concerned with corporate sustainability. We are going to need negative growth--and while theoretically that could be done while profits increase, it almost certainly won't be--decreasing consumption and proper internalization of externalized costs -- i.e. costs to the environment, to society, placed on us by companies that don't pay the full costs of their economic activities -- would both tend to rather decrease profits. I am certain this can be done while raising quality of life for many people (mainly people who have low quality of life, not those who already consume well and waaaaay above their "fair share" of resources), but when some people consume too much, some too little, and on the total the system is unsustainable, re-distribution is really the only game in town in terms of sustainability and justice. I haven't seen much talk of any of these things -- especially, say, within COP15 type circles -- which is why I view most of them as unserious in terms of actually helping avert continued and growing disasters for both humanity and our environment around us.

Related readings:

Steady State Economics:
Carbon trading (especially pertinent now):

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