Occasionally I hear people ask if we can buy our way into sustainability. That is a bit of an oxymoron, don’t you think? We can use commerce and stuff to begin the shift, to educate ourselves about how to produce stuff with no waste, and we can choose to use our money to move that process along.
The corollary that goes with this is a different kind of growth. Growth is not about being bigger, but about being better. Instead of bragging about the number of customers, locations or employees, companies can brag about how they have managed to eliminate waste and thus increase their bottom-line.
The biggest leap for business will be in redefining growth! A big part of the reluctance and resistance people and business, in particular, are expressing about sustainability has to do with this issue. All of our systems are predicated on a continuous increase in profits, size, reach etc. The reframing into better, more creative, more efficient, more long lasting etc. will not be without some painful side effects.
So much of our economy has been designed around planned obsolescence that the shift from shoddy to substantial seems incomprehensible. By changing our habits of destroying to rebuild to reusing we will need to totally rethink design. Design of houses, cars, buildings, machinery will be done with the thought of taking them apart easily to recover and reuse components and materials. Some computer manufacturers (HP) started this in the nineties, but it is far from universal.
As the idea has evolved it has lost its connection to reuse and become cost saving approach to manufacture. This is what I fear about much of what we are learning from nature. We grab hold of the cost savings, but ignore the sustainability principles behind it that need to inform all of our actions if we are to become a beneficial contribution to our home planet.
Industrial ecology – born about the same time, looked at co-locating businesses that could ‘feed’ off of each other by sharing waste as resource to create an artificial ‘ecology’ that would make the reuse of waste from one company as the resource for another easy and economical. The City of Kalundborg, Denmark is a famous example of the early adoption of these concepts. The Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology is keeping the concept alive, but it is far from mainstream.
When I think about the difference in the drivers behind nature and human economics the difference is as stark as life and death. The driver behind nature is Life! Nature always creates the conditions that support life! Economics is only about money and that focus is giving us death – death of the natural world, death to the spirit of humans who find sustenance in other expressions of human behavior beside money, death to those who toil at the bottom of the pyramid of wealth so that others can benefit. This is not a pretty picture.
The refocusing, however is not so hard. By shifting our attention to life instead of wealth we can achieve both. Most religious life is constantly making the case for understanding that real wealth is found in relationships, in the sun rise, and in the sound of whale song, not iPads, Jaguars and Rolex watches, so this line of thinking is not new. What IS new is the clarity of focus and the ability to evaluate that makes consistent decision-making possible. Following the natural principles and laws that have served the natural world for so long works for humans too! It is not by attaching a monetary value to mountain views, clean water, and rich soil that we will reframe our society, but by consciously choosing LIFE – in every decision we make.