Resources and the Economy

Changing the way we interact with nature is essential to avoid further climate change and biodiversity loss – but there’s more to it than that. Transitioning our societies into more sustainable ones helps secure a stable future, by ensuring that everything we do, we can do forever.

Infinite Growth in a Finite World

We live in economies that require growth for our societies to function. As the backbone of our economies, companies are drivers of growth. A successful company will expand and hire more employees, leading to growth in the society. The quest for growth is the main reason that companies are always innovating and integrating new markets. If they don’t and instead stay stagnant with their current products and customers, another company with newer products will leave them in the dust [similarly, financial growth requires that “your money should be making more money” with investments – another continuous increase].

Unfortunately, maintaining growth isn’t an easy task. And doing so forever in a finite world constrained by limited resources– well that’s simply impossible. We’ll touch more on that later.

Resources and Innovation

Thinking about our surrounding objects in terms of how many resources they’ve consumed can change the way you see the world. The new smartwatch launched today sure looks small, but its components have a massive footprint. Those mahogany kitchen cabinets? Same thing. Unless you live in the woods butt naked, everything around you has had a negative impact on the environment.

Innovating at the expense of the environment is understandable when it means lifting populations out of poverty and increasing quality of life. However, nowadays most innovations don’t help people make ends meet. Instead, they target people who already have enough, with newer [and often useless] products that help them accomplish tasks a fraction of a second faster, or automatically. Must we really deplete more of the world’s resources to avoid something as simple as flipping a light switch?

Although innovation has and will continue to lead to fantastic advances where it matters, like medical brain-scanning devices or vaccines, we have to remember that everything has a cost. As we try to reduce our global impacts on the environment, it’ll be our responsibility to determine which inventions are worth extracting/polluting for – and which ones are just profit-seeking wastes of resources.

Adapting to a Declining Economy in a Sustainable Future

As we’ve stated a few times, our economies are built on growth. Unfortunately, developed countries are just that – developed. Modern economic growth relies on infinite resources and population, but that’s obviously not realistic. We can’t open more markets once we’ve already achieved full globalization, and combining that with limited resources and declining population growth, we get a declining GDP growth rate [gross domestic product – more on that below] – which will eventually result in a declining GDP [once the growth rate reaches the negatives]. That sounds bad, but it doesn’t have to be. Not all economic systems have to depend on growth.

With a good transition plan in place, we’ll be just fine. Given the time, we can surely develop more sustainable employment opportunities for everyone, no matter the level of education. For example, in the future – we’ll need more factory workers to make insulator material, engineers to design better water management systems, and coders to develop tools to evaluate energy efficiency [and much more]. So there’s room for everyone.

It’s without the transition plan that it gets a bit trickier. We won’t attempt to predict the future here, but we’ll note a few important things:

  1. Our planet’s resources are finite, which means that businesses that rely on the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources will fail in the long term [in other words, if we can’t do something forever, then at some point we’ll have to stop]. There’s no getting around that.
  2. Governments that are unprepared will – by definition – not be ready to change. Unfortunately, creating the right conditions for a sustainable transition takes time. Consequently, if we wait and don’t come up with a plan soon, we’re effectively telling workers in unsustainable industries that their eventual unemployment [see 1.] doesn’t matter.
  3. When large chunks of the population are unemployed at the same time [see 1.], shit happens. If history repeats itself, then that either takes the form of direct violence, political extremism, or clashes between different ethnic groups.

So it’d be best if we started the transition to a more sustainable society sooner rather than later. On top of just being the logical thing to do based on the arguments presented above, it would also help us reduce our impacts on the environment before it’s too late.

What now

Where should we focus our efforts to reduce our impacts on the planet as efficiently as possible? For many individuals trying to get more familiar with the environmental crisis and its solutions, this is the million-dollar question. In essence, it amounts to asking: who’s responsible for the situation we’re in, and what can the culprits do differently?

Unfortunately, neither individuals, companies, nor governments can be blamed for 100% of the global warming or biodiversity loss that has occurred to date. That’s too bad – it could have made our job of fixing this mess a whole lot easier. Instead, it’s pretty clear that all 3 parties contributed in their own ways to the progressive release of GHG emissions and destruction of natural habitats.

Now this doesn’t mean that certain companies and governments are off the hook for purposefully slowing down environmental action and interfering with the scientific community – something that’s still very common today. It simply means that individuals have also had a negative impact on the planet, and it’s important to understand that.

However, it’s hard to say whether that means individuals share some of the responsibility of where we’re at with the environment today. For the longest time, nobody had a clue that there was a problem. And when many of us recently realized that there was, climate change and biodiversity loss had already become systemic issues, deeply engrained in our societies.

As such, to mitigate both climate change and biodiversity loss, solutions first and foremost have to come from governments and companies to affect change at large scales. For individuals, there are personalized solutions that can help us reduce our impacts on the environment – and we’ll see plenty in later sections – but it’s important to note that our efforts would be much more useful if aimed toward uprooting the unsustainable practices that our current systems rely on.

At the same time, it’s important for individuals to understand that some of our habits are purely unsustainable – no matter how careful we are. In those instances, truly eco-friendly [as opposed to people-pleasing] governments will have to pass strong regulations to ensure those habits change, for the better of the planet. Unfortunately, there can be significant pushback on these types of policies, as the individual liberty of having unsustainable habits is lost.

People-pleasing governments that don’t pass such policies, on the other hand, end up taking far less risks. And as the term ‘people-pleasing’ indicates, they’ll likely have better odds of reelection. That’s not something politicians can ignore. Sadly though, they’ll achieve far less meaningful change this way – which simply isn’t an option with the crisis at hand.

As such, to answer the question asked above: the most important thing individuals can do is voice their support for policies, to let governments know that they’ll be okay with the consequences. CyclopediApp’s next version will provide a plethora of resources for individuals to easily influence large scale decision-making.

Where to Start

To prevent unemployment and population unrest, governments have to step up and put more emphasis on the performance indicators that matter. The GDP is an outdated metric that doesn’t track what actually affects populations and fails to capture the environmental losses resulting from pollution and extraction.

As such, governments should “stop directing our economic system to the search for maximum growth and to constant increase in the gross national product.” Instead, they’d be better off evaluating happiness, education rates, natural stability, and of course employment rates [e.g. HDI, WDI, PQLI, etc…]. Switching from the GDP to these metrics will help our societies track stability and sustainability – which will help us focus our efforts there.

As we go along and point out weaknesses in the current economic system, it’s important to remember that we don’t suggest throwing the entire capitalist system in the trash. However, it’s also essential to realize that capitalism relies on certain unrealistic assumptions for it to ‘work’, like the quest for infinite growth we’ve mentioned a few times already. Capitalism was defined with a set of rules several centuries ago, so we shouldn’t be afraid of tweaking things that clearly aren’t possible as we go. It would be mighty unfair of us to expect that the early developers of capitalism could predict the future and the environmental crisis. After all, capitalism prides itself on innovation – it only seems fair to invent new rules for the system itself.

Conclusion

Adapting to a more sustainable economic model will be essential. Not only because the current unsustainable model can’t go on forever, but also because it’s an opportunity to drastically reduce unemployment, conflicts, and the destruction of our natural systems around the world.

At the same time, we’ll have to voice our support for policies that can affect change at the larger scales – while being ready to adapt to more sustainable lifestyles. CyclopediApp will help with that.