For those of us who have been striving for sustainability for over half a century, it’s a delight to see how, finally, our new generation understands how vital this is. We can rest knowing our planet is in good hands. Sustainability has been mainstreamed, in the jargon of aid agencies to developing nations. Sustainable actions, that in the 1970s would have taken hours to explain to a still unconvinced audience, can now be quickly justified with just 4 letters – SDGs. And everyone silently nods in understanding.
However, in the rush to get sustainable, it’s concerning to see some dangerous policies being slapped in, based on shallow understanding. These policies, left unchecked, will do more harm than good. As an acid test, be sure to apply 2 words to anything you hear about sustainability – evolution and added-value (OK, 3 words if you take out the hyphen).
Evolution. Of course, it’s the foundation of the science of Ecology. The strong prosper, the weak disappear. It’s such a fundamental and powerful force of nature that it cannot be fought by us mere humans. So those who believe sustainability is about trying to freeze our planet, its ecosystems, its species, and its climate in the state of some arbitrary point in time like the early 21C, are not only deluded, they will fail spectacularly. Mother Nature will not tolerate interference in her primary mission, evolution. Villages with no future, uncompetitive industries, and other relics of our human journey no longer on top of their game must be left to fail. Only then can scarce resources become available for beautiful new things to be born and nurtured.
New Zealand has made a big effort to hold onto the Kakapo, a large flightless parrot teetering on the precipice of extinction. It’s a beautiful bird, notable for the deep booming mating call of the male. However, one of the reasons for its precarious state is that it is very fussy about the conditions in which it will have sex, meaning that females only succeed in laying a fertile egg once every few years. Males spend many nights working that lonely booming call with apparently little success. One has to ask, does Mother Nature really want this species to continue?
Added-value. The science of Ecology studies competition, partnership strategies, resource procurement, efficiency and effectiveness. These are key factors that drive survival, and therefore evolution. You might recognize that these are also key factors studied in Economics. It’s no coincidence, because Economics is basically a special case of Ecology – the ecology of our species.
Recently there is a lot of talk about the need to produce locally to promote sustainability. It’s a generalization of the flawed Food Miles concept. Flawed because Food Miles only considers half of the environmental impact of produce – transport, whilst ignoring the impact of the production process itself. A system that generates 1 tonne of CO2 to produce a tonne of rice and 2 tonnes of CO2 to move that rice to market is, other things equal, as planet friendly as another system that exhausts 2 tonnes of CO2 to produce a tonne of rice and 1 tonne of CO2 to move it to market.
I’m good (ie. efficient, ie. low carbon output) at making product A. You are good (ie. efficient, ie. low carbon output) at making product B. So, we both focus on what we do best, and trade. As long as the carbon output from transporting our products to each other is less than the carbon saving we made from most efficient production, everyone is a winner, including our planet. You’ll recognize this as the old economic principle of comparative advantage. We ignore it at our peril.
The acid test on plans to produce locally is, does that add any value? An example where it might is tourism. Visitors to Pacific Islands will be delighted to find for breakfast fresh mango, bananas, pawpaw, coconut, rather than imported canned fruit from their home country. But if all you are trying to do is grow coffee in a region less suited to doing so than many other parts of the world, why bother? Import the coffee (Fair Trade of course) and provide some much needed income to the offshore producers of it.