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.
An important first step in moving away from a continuous growth economy is recognizing our own role in its continuation. When I was in middle school, my parents bought an Xbox and a set of games for me and my brother. This was one of the first encounters we had with competitive video gaming, fueled by the ability to connect to players all around the world. The concept of the game was simple: out-maneuver and hunt down the enemy team before they could do the same to you. In the months that followed, we became increasingly competitive and focused on dominating our opponents.
We along with every other player were driven by a fiercely competitive drive to be the best. It’s hard-wired in our genetics to compete against one another. Many research papers have been written about hormone responses to winning or losing athletic competitions, suggesting there may be genetic drivers of our competitive nature. A 2013 study found that individual competitiveness is also connected to various socio-ecological factors, and that people will adapt to become more or less competitive based on their environment (Liebbrandt, 2013). These are not controversial statements, and the competitive nature of individuals of any species is well-documented.
Competition has driven us to accomplish incredible things as a society. The United States sent human beings to the Moon largely to prove we could do it before the Russians. Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in a hurry to claim the credit before fellow scientist Alfred Wallace could do so. And every new iteration of smartphones or automobiles is developed as the next step in the perpetual competition among businesses to dominate their competitors.
And therein lies the problem. We compete so intensely to be successful in our growth economy that we’re ravaging the very environment that keeps us alive. This competition doesn’t end with one team victorious over another. It ends when our planet cannot support the game, or our society, any longer.
Can we de-escalate? Redirecting our efforts toward economic supremacy into something new and sustainable will only be possible if we are first willing to address and resist our competitive nature. The economy reflects our behavior toward others. If we continue to compete instead of collaborating, then the same problems will still exist.
Continuous growth is a core aspect of our traditional economy, around which everything else is built. To remove growth is nothing short of a tectonic shift in our global economy. But perhaps a global economy is not the goal toward which we should strive. Perhaps a global economy is incompatible with the natural systems of our world. We’re better off with a new model, focused around local resources and production with supplements from larger networks to provide the things a local economy cannot.
Consider the agricultural industry. Supermarkets today are stocked with produce from around the world, with some products flying thousands of miles to arrive at the store. Large-scale farms use egregious amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, and preservatives to ensure their products grow faster and stay fresher for longer. Despite those efforts, nearly 40% of all food grown in the United States is never eaten (Gunders), largely due to rejecting produce that doesn’t look like what we expect. Our efforts to globalize food production demands our food to grow faster in any season, look more consistent, and stay fresh longer than nature can manage.
We’ve invested tremendous resources in adapting nature to a global economy, at the cost of rampant environmental problems. Fertilizer runoff from farmland has created algal blooms visible from space, and carbon emissions from transporting produce contributes to global climate change. We should instead be focused on building an economy that works with and enhances nature’s own systems. Instead of shipping exotic produce thousands of miles, offer a selection more suited to the region and season. Instead of treating our produce with pesticides, pursue more natural methods of pest resistance.
Regional economies do not necessarily have to be restricted to single towns, and can grow as large as an entire nation. Developing a series of regional agricultural industries can meet the needs of a local area without the harmful environmental tradeoffs of a global system. Farmers and producers are closer to the end consumers, reducing the need for distribution centers and growing profits for farmers while keeping costs for consumers low. Additionally, with less need to transport food over long distances and keep produce fresh, our food can be spared the pesticide and preservative treatments we use currently.
Other industries can adapt to a regional scale by following a franchise model encouraging local ownership. This would drive greater profits and improve the overall economic strength of a community. Instead of multi-national corporations directing profits to executives, the collective owners of business franchises receive a larger share of benefits. All but the most complex goods and services can be adapted to a regional economy, and those that cannot can be fractured by trade between regions to develop necessary products.
A regional series of economies, focused on local long-term economic and social sustainability, may prove better suited to meet the needs of our global society. Instead of becoming a global industry by investing in expansion, businesses return growth to their established communities to support an expanding middle class. Instead of rapidly developing new versions of products to drive stagnating sales, businesses can encourage maintenance and repair of high-quality products.
However, with the pursuit of smaller regional economies comes the danger of operating in protectionist or isolationist methods. Stepping back from a global economy does not necessitate stepping back from a global community. If our first step is to recognize that competition amongst ourselves is not an effective strategy, then scaling our economies to become regionally focused and dedicated to community welfare will not drive us toward isolationism.
Liebbrandt, Andreas, et al. “Rise and Fall of Competitiveness in Individualistic and Collectivistic Societies.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Edited by Jose Scheinkman, vol. 110, no. 23, 21 May 2013, doi:10.1073/pnas.1300431110.
Gunders, Dana. “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.” Www.NRDC.org, Natural Resources Defense Council, 17 Aug. 2017, www.nrdc.org/resources/wasted-how-america-losing-40-percent-its-food-farm-fork-landfill.