By Molly Murfee
Herman Daly in his book Ecological Economics speaks to the impossibility of having infinite economic growth without simultaneously depleting our resources. He purports growth leading to a loss in ecosystem services leads to a decline in the quality of life and is termed “uneconomic growth.”
Ecosystem services are defined as the “things” we get from our environment. They can range from the obvious provision of food, water and air; to such commodities as a forest’s ability to prevent erosion by securing soil through their roots; or the ability of soil and rock and plants to filter out impurities that would otherwise end up in our water.
Our conventional sense of success is predominately defined by how much money we make, and we are often inordinately focused on this one value to the exclusion of other values. We need a paradigm shift – in our culture, economic pursuits, policies and politics – towards one of sustainability.
My favorite definition of sustainability comes from the book Environment, Development & Sustainability. It reads, “Sustainability implies responsible and proactive decision-making and innovation that minimizes negative impact and maintains balance between ecological resilience, economic prosperity, political justice and cultural vibrancy.” A paper from the United Nations Environmental Program, “Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainably Living,” says that sustainability is something that “improves the quality of life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.”
Sustainability is typically supported by three pillars (often called the “triple bottom line”) – that of people, planet and profit – meaning you cannot pursue profit at the expense of your cultural or natural resources. It is a state of human-ecosystem equilibrium. More recently, the fourth pillar, “politics,” has been added to recognize it is through policy that much of this equilibrium can be created and maintained.
This is obviously not the equilibrium we are living in now – not in our nation, and not around the globe.
We must orient every economic decision we make to one that views these pillars of people, planet and profit as an interactive system. We must make decisions based on the capacity of our land and impacts to our people to come back to balance.
There are models in our midst. Forests and wetlands boast sustainable ecological systems that are diverse (a key word here) and productive indefinitely. Around the world are examples of “eco-municipalities” where local governments adopt ecological and social justice values in their charters. There are 70 of these in Sweden – 25% of the total municipalities in that country.
Sustainability is the true future. The very model of capitalism values unlimited and continual growth over everything else, something none of us, nor any land or creature on it, can maintain. A movement within sustainability is to “decouple” the relationship between economic profitability and environmental and cultural degradation, allowing economic growth to occur without corresponding increases in environmental pressure.
Sustainability is exciting, as it includes such terms as “resilience,” “endurance,” and “innovation.” In its pursuit we must be pro-active, persistent and dynamic. We must think outside of the box.
The word “economy” has etymological roots in Greece with “oikos” meaning the family, the family’s property, and the house. It is coupled with “nomos” which means “to manage or steward.” In the 1660s this definition expanded to officially include that of frugality, since management and stewardship of our resources naturally means using the least amount necessary. And so we return to subjects of our extended sense of home – this place – and the concept of stewardship.
Will we fearfully fall into the trap of the norm, relentlessly pursuing profit, traipsing like a bunch of ill-fated lemmings down the path of self destruction? Or will we pick our heads up, be creative, be brave, be the “living on the edge” bold, intelligent people that we are and embrace, create and demand a value system that translates into policies, increasing our resilience through the inclusion of care of our people and place?
Creative non-fiction and place-based author Molly Murfee specializes in nature and environmental writing cut with cultural and societal critique. She is additionally a faculty with the MFA in Creative Writing, Nature Writing Concentration at Western Colorado University. Sign up for Molly’s Earth Muffin Memos Blog & Newsletter for more on her ongoing book project; field-based Writing & Connection Workshops; online advertising and syndicate column opportunities; and freelance writing services at www.mollymurfee.com.