Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
December 1, 2008
Work towards creating a sustainable society cannot wait
With the prospect of economic hard times upon us, one increasingly hears the refrain that concerns for the environment will have to wait until the economy improves. The assumption is that environmental concern is a frill that should only be dealt with when there are a few extra dollars in our pockets.
It is this attitude that got the economy into its current morass in the first place. Sustainability, it has been assumed, is a concern secondary to ensuring a riotous way of life today. As long as we are fulfilling every imagined desire today, we can spare a few crumbs for future generations. But once desire has to be restrained, then forget about the future.
Sustainability, it needs to be argued, ought to be a perennial concern. Moreover, sustainability is not just environmental sustainability, but also fiscal and moral sustainability. Our responsibility is to ensure that future generations – as well as people around the world today – are able to have viable and harmonious societies.
The Western world's longstanding prosperity is not based solely on good fortune and hard work. It has a moral foundation.
Private enterprise has an ethic of initiative, responsibility, self-forgetfulness, thrift, deferral of material comfort, loyalty and respect for workmanship. Without such virtues, enterprise would make little headway.
Capitalism more recently has relied on traits such as planned obsolescence, easy credit and rank personal ambition. Our narrow focus on ever-expanding prosperity has made it nearly impossible to make a public argument in favour of limits – moral, environmental and economic. Even the Green Party will not argue for limits to growth; it only says prosperity can and should be environmentally responsible.
Despite today's crisis, the notion of limits remains out of favour. Central bankers are still looking for ways to torque up the public's use of credit. Virtues such as thrift and self-denial are seen as a drag on economic recovery.
Conservatism is a sham. While some conservative parties will make a ritual bow to "family values" – and others no longer bother – the emphasis remains on minimizing economic regulation.
If we do not make sustainability a central goal, society will sooner or later become unsustainable. Many will be glad if the revelry can be sustained until their careers are over and their nest egg assured.
But the far-sighted citizen will say there are limits – moral limits, limits to natural resources and to the damage the planet can sustain, and limits to how much we can borrow against the future.
We can try to put off the day of reckoning. The better, more just approach is to say that we ought to abandon some of our endless desires. Today.
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