Ed. Note: We are happy to share this reader response, which is part of a series submitted by undergraduate students at Loyola University Chicago from a course called ENVS 363: Sustainable Business Management.
The role of an economy is not to sell goods to the population, but rather to provide them. While these may seem like two very similar things, they are very different. Business as usual has always been the pattern of acquiring resources, manufacturing a product, distributing the product, using the product, and disposing of the product. It is a step-by-step formula of how we live our lives. As populations grow, providers of products increase, as well as the extraction of resources and disposal of waste. Waste is in fact a human construct—it does not exist in nature. It is something that cannot increase indefinitely on a finite world. So what can we do about this one-way trip to nowhere? Ultimately it comes down to control—of our economies and ourselves.
First, one must understand that something finite cannot contain something that grows infinitely. Surprisingly I am not just talking about the growth of the economy. I am talking about what that economic growth is tied to: human population. It once again comes down to a matter of logic. We live in a world of finite resources, and no matter how efficient we get at using those resources, they are still limited. The earth still has a carrying capacity that humanity can all to easily exceed. And when a system has exceeded its carrying capacity, it is not to pretty for the overextended species.
Not only is a certain population cap necessary, but it is also the first step to slowing down our consumption. By limiting the growth of potential markets, we are able to put a very basic restriction on the growth of the economy. However, at the same time, controlling the population is not going to be enough. We must also take control of ourselves. We require a social reformation, one that directs us away from rampant and dangerous consumerism.
I am sure we have all heard many times before about how many countries, especially the United States, focus too much on consumer culture. Some people believe this is mostly due to increased push for consumption by business on the consumer population in the forms of advertisement and social pressure. Some believe it is the social and moral decay of the general populace. I think it is a little of both. Either way, a large social change is going to be necessary in order to stop our current trend of consume and dispose. Just like when an individual over-consumes, and grows too large for their own health, a reduction in consumption is the first step to living a healthy lifestyle. The economy can no longer be focused on one-way consumption, but on a cyclical model that follows nature—a model in which all outputs are used and nothing is truly wasted.
It is not just a reduction of total consumption, but specifically a reduction in what we know is bad for us. That means we need to de-incentivize production that we know is bad for us. For example, we know that coal has a high carbon and sulfur content. It is a very “bad” fuel source that is extremely cheap. However, it is only cheap because burning it does not take into account the cost of the environmental damages it causes. Companies have been able to externalize negative impacts of their production, and tell the consumer they can get this high-cost product for very cheap, and that is just untrue. Many years ago we forced companies to post nutrition facts on our food in order to fully understand what we were putting into our bodies. We did it so we could make the right choices about what is best for us. Is it so strange that we want companies and the general populace to fully recognize what our consumption does to our surroundings and us? Communities, even on a small, local scale, have to act in their own best interest.
It is the community’s responsibility to determine how it wishes to be run. And perhaps by keeping things in the hands of a local economy, we can improve our standards. Economics on a global scale is far too damaging and cumbersome to respond to social and environmental changes of an immediate nature. By breaking the markets down into smaller, more localized areas, they will be much easier to convert into circular and sustainable systems. An example is a service bank in a local community, which trades hours of work between people instead of money. Another example is Uber, a ride-sharing service that operates in large metropolitan areas. This eliminates the need for individuals to have a personal mode of transportation. Locally sourced economies also benefit developing countries in that they are less likely to extract resources and transport them over great distances. This keeps wealth and monetary value in the community instead of exporting it somewhere else
Establishing an economy without growth, or a steady state economy, is not only possible, but it is incredibly important. However, that does not mean it will be easy. Control of one’s self and one’s desires rarely is. We know that rampant growth has been shown not only to be impossible to sustain, but over time it erodes quality of life around the globe. Smaller communities, where populations are stable and producers account for the full cost of what they produce, is the first step to slowing down the useless growth of an economy on a scale too big for our little planet to support it for much longer.