How do We Create a Successful Economy Without Continuous Economic Growth?

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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.

In order to properly address the question, it seems most appropriate that we first define what we are asking for when we say that we are trying to create a more successful economy.

To many humans, we live in a world where success means living in a nice house, having nice accessories, and otherwise owning nice tangible objects. Yet is that what we should be thinking of when we think of success? Yes, you may argue that we are talking about two different kinds of success when considering an individual as opposed to our economy at large: however, the two are not very different. When we think about it, it is the successful drive of individuals within the economy, that drive the economy forward, so why would we not consider the individual in our economy when talking about its future success?

Here I would like to introduce my idea of how we can create a successful economy, that is by reorienting ourselves towards success and applying that perspective to a sustainable economic system like the circular economy in order to project ourselves towards success. By teaching ourselves what success can mean, we can begin to adapt and make normal the habits of a sustainable economic system, void of continuous growth.

The way we think about success today has become very convoluted, making it such that we associate our successes with tangible objects or individual experiences. In our economy, we are very linear in our approach to success, consuming resources at alarmingly fast rates and continuing to stretch the bounds of what we think is acceptable. Our lives are steadily driven by our goals and our families, providing for us and ultimately raising children who will go on to fulfill their role within our economy. We are very much built on a framework that is one sided, whereby we take but do not give back to the environment that supports us. To continue to live the lives we have been living is to perpetuate redundancies that have led us to this tipping point in our history. For example, if an athlete was a rampant smoker, how could the athlete expect to be the best at their craft, with such a detrimental vice that impedes the thing an athlete needs most, their health! In the case of human kind, we require the environment to continue to live as it provides for all life on this planet, yet very much like the smoking habit of the athlete, we ravage our earth with blind eyes, taking with no remorse. It seems only fit that this vision of success, built on ideals that take and do not give back, should be reworked to serve our current and future goals. It seems only fit that we should pay closer attention to the world around us and take notice to the damage that can be done from belligerent economic growth. For to not do so, may eventually cause a heart-attack, or otherwise a breakdown of the system we rely on so heavily much like the smoker-athlete in our example.

Now perhaps reworking our ethic about what success really means is important, but it alone is not conducive to economic success. In order to create a successful economy, we have to build a relationship between this reoriented ethic and a sustainable economic system. The circular economy is a good example of a sustainable system, meant to do more than reduce and recycle, but rather integrate these principles into the framework of the economy. When thinking about the circular economy, reusing and repurposing of materials is extended throughout the economy, having several stages where products are made anew or used for alternate purposes. This idea is meant to eliminate waste, and do more than have any one immediate reuse, but opens up the possibility for rebuilding and reworking before recycling for reuse. This economic system alone seems self sufficient and would make our economy more sustainable: however, it does not seem to be able to address the issue of continual economic growth alone. An integral part of adopting this form of sustainable economy is that all people need to be on the same page. Without a unified goal in sustaining our planet, we may sell short the breakthroughs in sustainable science that are pushing for progress. Without a strong push for everyone to view sustainability as a lifestyle, rather than a social movement there is a strong possibility of losing the interest of people caught in their current habits. Even if we provide the structure for sustainable practice, what is to say that people will put the principle into practice? Although the economic system at large can orient itself towards “success,” without the cooperation of the individuals that make up the economy, the system will contradict the “economic success” we are striving for.

For the individuals in our economy to orient themselves towards success, it is important to integrate sustainability into every aspect of their lives. One of the largest influencers in our economy is the business realm, which is a great place to begin the sustainable movement. For businesses to take up core values that focus on sustainable action and business practice will be the first step in reaching our audience, ushering in a new era of sustainability. While large corporations may be able to adopt sustainable principles easier than small, locally owned businesses, we will need to address this barrier to entry, as even now it limits the participation of all businesses in sustainable practices. This means the establishment of non-profits and federal organizations that will make the transition to a sustainable practice more manageable for small businesses. Outside of the business sector, it is important to consider the influence that social settings and activities have on our approach to sustaining our economy, and moving in a successful direction. Food and our consumption habits are also important parts of our lives that we have built unsustainable habits around.

If we are to truly orient ourselves towards a sustainable lifestyle, we must target the reworking of social constructs, like going out to dinner, having parties, or otherwise meeting with people in a public setting. Our current practices are very much built on the social aspect of events, but do not consider the environmental implications, or the otherwise principles of sustainability that we sacrifice for in participating in large events blindly. When we are able to approach activities, be them private, public, or social fully aware of the impact they have, we as an economic group can move all the closer to success.

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