Ed. Note: We are happy to share this reader response, which is part of a series submitted by undergraduate students at Loyola University Chicago from a course called ENVS 363: Sustainable Business Management.
If economics can be defined as the study of the allocation of scarce resources, then what does it become when we no longer have any resources to allocate? What incentives do we have to protect the natural systems that support our economy when we only see them as a means to an end, with no independent value? These questions do not have a simple answer, and it is incredibly difficult to value the environmental component to sustainability, which is comprised of economic, social, and environmental pieces. All the same, it is important that we begin to examine the potential of a future where fewer natural resources are readily available. Additionally, we must change the way we educate others and ourselves about the environment by beginning discussions with the importance of protecting the environment itself and not how it will serve humans interest alone.
As sustainability has established itself in the economic and political dogma of the twenty-first century, one might think we have finally found the answer to our environmental problems. Though, to many, sustainability is an abstract concept and directly challenges the idea that infinite economic growth is natural and good. For example, many believe sustainability is rooted in the economic need to conserve resources so our nation can continue to grow our GDP. To others, this version of sustainability falls short because they believe that the focus should be more greatly placed upon the prevention of pollution, soil degradation, deforestation, habitat loss, and other problems that threaten our environment. Although sustainability is an important piece of living a more environmentally sound life, simply reducing waste, reusing materials, and recycling our paper, glass, and plastic is not enough to mitigate the harm we’ve caused to the environment today. We must go one step further.
The mitigation begins with how we value the natural resources we’ve been given on Earth. Think back to how you learned about environmental resources for the first time. Perhaps it was in a biology class or an introductory economics course. When I think about my own personal experience, I often wonder why none of my teachers ever discussed the intrinsic value of the systems we so often studied. If we begin educating students about the importance of the environment and the services it provides from an early age, sustainable practices would no longer be an afterthought or abstract concept. Additionally, an anthropocentric framework for sustainability would no longer dominate our experiences in the classroom, but instead, we would begin to learn that all things have innate value aside from their economic value or value to humans. Imagine the difference in behavior if we began educating children about the environment’s true fundamental value, and if those lessons were the foundation for everything else we would learn in school. Yes, that the environment and its entire system of natural processes were significant just because they existed.
The jump to a sustainable and socially just economy seems less far-fetched when education is focused on the value of our environment not just as an intermediary source for human gratification. As students would begin to learn about the environment’s value, they might become more interested in their own local environment. Thus spurring generations of responsible stewards for this planet. And who are they responsible for? The future generations who will need resources to survive no matter what the technological innovation of the present day. There is no better place to begin a re-education of a generation than the United States because we bear the greatest burden of environmental mistreatment.
A global form of this environmental education can be found in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which unfortunately, the US currently lacks greatly in meeting these goals in comparison with other developed nations. As less developed countries like China, India, and parts of Latin America begin to grow their economies, it is important that they incorporate the environment into the equation in ways the United States failed to do. Otherwise, as these emerging economies begin to take shape, they will act as a catalyst for climate change by adopting unsustainable western lifestyles. With only a limited number of resources on Earth, it simply cannot sustain several other nations consuming at the same rate as the United States. Additionally, the business case for sustainability cannot become just a marketing tool or brand management technique without much implementation. As foreign investors emerge in less developed economies, it is their duty to protect and preserve the environments they are exploiting.
Any change in how our current economy operates will require a cultural shift towards intrinsic environmental value and in turn, personal sacrifice. When we learn to value the systems around us for what they are aside from humans, it is no longer as easy to exploit them. We would not be the first people to venture down this path. Before economies and the societies of today even existed, early civilizations had a better relationship with the natural world. They worked towards a balance with the systems they needed for survival. Although attempting to duplicate the relationships that earlier civilizations had with the Earth or the natural systems occurring in the environment seems idealistic, it is a first step in the right direction, and is practiced on a small-scale level today through bio-mimicry techniques.
There will never be a convenient time to alter the way in which our current economy operates, but something most will agree upon is that “business as usual” is no longer an option. Consult any environmental study, and you will find we are on a trajectory that leaves humans with less ecosystem services than ever in the years to come. It is time to incorporate the real cost of living into the economy and the intrinsic value of the environment into our education.