Development means improving people’s lives. Sustainability means living on the earth’s renewable resources without damaging the ecological processes that support us all. Sustainable development is an effort to marry these two ideas. A popular definition describes this goal as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
But is this possible? One could argue that our present population and economic levels are exhausting the world’s resources. Some would insist there is no way that more people can live at a higher standard without irreversibly degrading our environment. Others might claim that there’s enough for everyone if we just share equitably and live modestly. This presents an important debate. And one that sets the stage for sustainable economies.
A sustainable economy requires an ecological economics view. Ecological economics applies ecological ideas of system functions and recycling to the definition of resources. This school of thought also recognizes efficiency in nature, and it acknowledges the important of ecosystem functions for the continuation of human economies and cultures. In nature, one species’ waste is another’s food, so that nothing is wasted. We need an economy that recycles materials and uses energy efficiently, much as a biological community does.
Ecological economics also treats the natural environment as part of our economy, so that natural capital becomes a key consideration in economic calculations. Ecological function, such as absorbing and purifying wastewater, processing air pollution, providing clean water, carrying out photosynthesis, and creating soil, are known as ecological services. These services are free: we don’t pay for them directly (although we often pay indirectly when we suffer from their absence). Therefore, they are often excluded from conventional economic accounting, a situation that needs to be rectified.
Many ecological economists also promote the idea of a steady-state economy. They argue that economic health can be maintained without constantly growing consumption and throughput (the amount of resources a society uses and discards). Instead, efficiency and recycling of resources can allow steady prosperity where there is little or no population growth. Low birth rates and death rates, political and social stability, and reliance on renewable energy would characterize such a steady-state economy. These economists argue that human and social capital—knowledge, happiness, art, life expectancies, and cooperation—can continue to grow even without constant expansion of resource use.
A sustainable economy relies on businesses using resources in responsible ways and consumers demanding it. Nonrenewable resources exist in finite amounts. Renewable resources are naturally replenished and recycled at a fairly steady rate. Nonrenewable resources can be extended through more efficient use. Substitution will also reduce demand for these resources. Recycling also extends supplies of nonrenewable resources. Efficient use, substitution, and recycling are three ways resources can be used responsibly, promoting sustainable economies.
When growing a sustainable economy, the goal of community sustainability is to establish local economies that are economically viable, environmentally sound and socially responsible. Achieving this goal requires participation from all sectors of the community, both to determine community needs and to identify and implement innovative and appropriate solutions. There are numerous ways communities can develop key aspects of local economies on a sustainable basis.
- Agriculture and Food Systems
Community efforts can preserve agricultural land, encourage sustainable agricultural practices, support local food producers, and facilitate the production and distribution of locally produced food through farmer’s markets and cooperative food buying programs.
Aquatic wildlife plays a major role in sustaining healthy marine and freshwater ecosystems. It is therefore important that communities associated with fisheries and aquatic ecosystems responsibly manage these resources. Community participation can provide support for sound management practices and remedial programs, as well as for persons and industries engaged in commercial and recreational fishing.
- Forestry and Wood Products
Trees are important for both urban and rural ecosystems. Mature trees maintain desirable microclimates and shelter wildlife. Trees also have economic value as a raw material used in producing paper, buildings, furniture, and other wood products. Communities need to balance these environmental and economic uses.
- Manufacturing and Industry
Economically healthy businesses and industries with minimal environmental impact on communities should be encouraged. Communities should work to attract and support such industries and to reduce or eliminate negative impacts from existing industries.
- Small Business
Small businesses are sources of employment and providers and consumers of goods and services that sustain the local economy. Their operation should support the local ecology, minimize energy use and waste, and utilize recycled products and materials.
Technological advances in business, health, education, and the environment provide new opportunities for communities. Many information products are available, and some may have environmental implications. Communities must be current and guide their economies accordingly.
- Economics and Finance
Residents from all segments of the community can play a role in the future of their local economy. Working together, business and government leaders, local non-profit organizations, and citizen groups can analyze needs and resources and guide the economy. Local financial institutions can invest in sustainable community initiatives.
- Urban/Rural Economic Ties
It is in the interest of urban and rural residents to work together in mutually supportive ways. Cooperative efforts in land preservation, sustainable agriculture, growth management, appropriate development of rural resources, improved trading and tourism, and development of low-impact regional planning and transportation systems should be encouraged.