Hearing about environmental problems is unavoidable these days. The word sustainability is usually associated with environmental values, but there are at least two other major categories that are talked about, but often as separate issues: economic and social sustainability. However, these three form a unity (see graph), where they are in fact all interconnected and have an impact on each other. Without any one of them, true sustainability cannot exist. Unfortunately it is getting clearer and clearer that it’s a mathematical impossibility to keep the things the way they are today, not only because of the environment, but also the other parameters.
For now I won’t comment of whether the current economy is sustainable by itself or not, but since everything in the society is so overwhelmingly dominated by it, it cannot be ignored. It’s effects on the other parameters are immense.
Money is the glucose, the energy that’s circulating the veins of the modern society, and thus economy very much dictates our well-being – both directly, and indirectly through politics etc. Money needs to flow, to cycle, to exist to guarantee functioning. Instead being based on the laws of thermodynamics and entropy1, this behaviour is run by a different set of rules. It’s based on our needs and wants, and a constant exchange where money is the universal currency, given in order to get something … in exchange. Money is not spread equally, as it both empowers and regulates the society, and one’s position and actions define one’s personal capital flux.
Industries use money to exchange it for the things needed to produce something that’s then exchanged for more money. Some of the money is used to buy time and expertise from people, who later on spend it on various things created by the industries, creating another side current and eventually bringing the money back. Moreover, in a society there are typically additional side currents for money – for example taxes to fund the functions of a government. The government often redistributes some of the money back to the industries and the people, keeping the circulation going. The nuances obviously differ from country to country.
Basically the system we have built does sound like it could actually work. Value is exchanged for value – fair game. However, the animals that we the humans are, we have of course found ways to cheat the system that we’ve created, and things have gotten skewed. Economy isn’t so much based on equal trade anymore (if it ever was). The economy and companies must grow in order to stay alive, so there must be profit. And profit must be maximised. As everyone wants to get their share there is competition, and in this competition typically the biggest companies will eventually make it and outgrow everyone else.
In the big companies the employees must live up to the expectations of the people higher in the hierarchy, in order to be successful and to keep their jobs. Throughout the whole hierarchy, this many times leads into more or less inconsiderate decisions being made on how to optimise profit, and often either people or the environment get to suffer from them. “I’m just doing my job, you know.” I don’t think any company actively tries to hurt people or the environment by their actions, but closing one’s eyes from these things is just a bit too easy. Clothing companies don’t want to practically enslave people in developing countries for cotton harvesting. Coal companies don’t want to contribute to the greenhouse effect, but how else are they going to profit? Facebook and Netflix don’t want to deprive people from their free time, but tying people in their services is essential.
Because of the profit maximization and the sheer volume of sales, big companies can often offer their products cheaper than the competition around, which is usually a good enough incentive for a regular consumer to choose their product over the others, which again leads to the before-mentioned “outgrowing the competition”. In addition to this, governments charge the economy with another bias by its influence. As governments are just as dependent on economy as the rest of the society, the industries that are the most beneficial bring the most money in are supported with subsidies. This way certain things become cheaper than they should, and the demand goes up just thanks to the price. The whole image gets even more distorted.
As said, the inconsiderate decisions of the industries end up being supported by the bulk of consumers for clear reasons. However, this is pretty much the only spot in the system, where it can be changed and turned around! The amount of power we have in our hands often go unrecognised, as our consumption creates the demand that dictates what gets produced. Sadly, another side effect of the system is that our decisions are being influenced with a flood of marketing and ads, which seems to be efficient in stripping away this power we have. The system will never change itself, the only way to do so is by the ones it was created by and for, and the ones who feed it from the bottom up. That’s us.
Money is the energy of a society, and this is why the economy bleeds to the other aspects of sustainability. Due to the sheer amount of things that get produced just because it is required to maintain things the way they are, the system has become like a huge car engine that requires vast amounts of fuel to get to places – the machine must carry its own weight that’s growing alongside with the increased power. Instead of doing some maintenance or switching to a smaller one, we keep tuning it to go faster AND LOUDER. Some hiccups here and there since it’s getting a bit rusty and outdated, but that’s just normal…
To have a sustainable society and for this all to be worthwhile, the environment and the society must agree with the progression of the economy. The environment is already telling us what it thinks – when is our turn?
- Fundamentally, the law of entropy is most likely the indirect cause, but this deserves a discussion of its own. ↩︎