Global Policy Forum

Sustainability - A New Bottom Line


By Dr. David Suzuki

Environmental News Network
January 5, 2005

Last time, I talked about the factors that have led to a shattering of our worldview, but I only hinted at the biggest one -- the economy. And it's our economy that needs the most work. As currently constructed, the global economy exists in isolation. It exists in a world without limits, without constraints on growth, pollution or exploitation. The trouble is, there is no such world. Our world (the only planet that we know of in the entire universe that is capable of supporting life) is finite. Our resources are limited. Our little planet can only provide so many goods and absorb so much of our waste. Given these constraints, our current economy, which is predicated on relentless growth, is unsustainable. Something has to give.

Under the current economic system, essential aspects of the natural world like air, the ozone layer, water, topsoil, biodiversity, and many others are considered "externalities," that is, outside the economy. But it is through these features that nature performs vital services, such as filtering water, pollinating flowering plants, composting vegetation, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, and much more. Many of these critical services could never be duplicated by human technology, yet because they are provided for free by nature, they are essentially ignored as though they were worthless.

The biosphere -- the zone of air, water and land where life exists -- is a thin band that surrounds the earth. If the earth were reduced to the size of a basketball, the biosphere would be thinner than a layer of Saran Wrap and it's fixed. It can't grow. And that thin layer is where we derive our existence, where we deposit all the emissions from our machines, where we get our air, water and food. It is what makes our lives and an economy possible.

According to standard economic theory, none of that matters. Instead, human inventiveness and productivity are seen as the basis of the economy. And since there is no limit to human creativity, it is often assumed that the economy can grow forever. A growing economy is therefore equated with progress. No one wants to stop progress, but when it is so narrowly defined, we never ask "How much is enough?", "Why do we need all this?" or "What is an economy for?"

When we stand back and ask these questions it becomes clear that what we want out of an economy is to be able to lead a high quality of life and to ensure that future generations have the same opportunities. That means the standard for measuring economic growth, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is woefully inadequate. GDP measures all the money that changes hands in a country. This includes money to clean up oil spills, treat illness caused by smog, clean up car accidents and more. So oil spills, smog and car accidents are good for the economy, but bad for us.

We need a new bottom line that recognizes that we are embedded in the natural world and therefore acknowledges the value of its services for our health and quality of life. We need to recognize that our world is finite and that it is in our best interests to find ways for us to lead fulfilling lives without depleting the natural services upon which we ultimately depend. In short, we need to find sustainability.

The survival attribute of our species was our brain. We used it to look ahead, recognize dangers and take appropriate action to ensure survival. It's time we began to use that brain again and rediscover the real world that sustains us and set the real bottom line for our quality of life and, ultimately, for our survival.




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