In the United States, at least, the bottom line has replaced the number nine as the mystical number. Every action is expected to have a payoff that is measurable and, preferably, profitable. This attitude is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it inspires businesses, governments, and individuals to strive for efficiency. On the other hand, it encourages lowest-cost solutions and immediate return on investment. The higher initial costs to build a “green” building, for example, are weighed against the long-term savings to operate the facility, but rarely against the long-term benefits to the natural environment. And sometimes it’s difficult to prove that any additional costs lead to savings over time: thicker building insulation is a net cost benefit only if the thermostat is set properly; permeable pavement prevents polluted storm water from running into streams only if it stays unclogged. In virtually all human endeavors, there is now a tension between the short-term and the long-term, and people spend a great deal of time trying to reconcile these considerations. Indeed, an industry has developed of professionals dedicated to the built environment who do little else – urban planners, real estate market analysts, transportation consultants, and environmental engineers, to name a few.
The tension between the present and the future is at the core of sustainability, which asks us to re-think how our economy expands. But sustainability remains a small voice trying to be heard over the great growth-rumble of capitalism.
The history of capitalism is the story of relentless growth – growth of production, growth of worker productivity, growth of consumption, and growth in the demands placed on nature. In a capitalist economy, producers of goods and services are forced to compete with one another, and the pressure to survive results in a self-reinforcing cycle of technological innovation, productivity increases, new products, and the marketing of these products to ensure their sale: new technologies reduce labor costs by increasing worker productivity; production costs are thereby lowered, which means prices for consumers can also be lowered; people therefore have more disposable income to purchase new products; and, eventually, the labor forced out of old lines of production can be re-employed in the production of new products. Thus economic growth generates more growth.
The reproductive cycle of capitalism is not always smooth or steady, but it has churned without cessation for the past four centuries and shows no sign of stopping. Capitalism is the universe, the cosmos of modern human economic existence. We long ago passed the point where we could parse the world around us in noncapitalist terms, where we could justify our endeavors as other than good business. Today, we process actions, events, objects, and what happens in our lives according to the norms of capitalism: natural resources, community assets, human capital, private life, winning advice, educational standards, marketplace of ideas. A child who performs well is complemented for doing a good job. An authoritarian person is bossy. And on and on.
The bedrock need for capitalists to produce more and more at minimum cost in order to remain competitive and stay in business has profound and not always benevolent impacts on the fundamental ecological cycles – water, nitrogen, carbon – upon which life on earth depends. Briefly considering how these ecological cycles are affected by the reproductive cycle of capitalism permits us to see sustainable development in its full economic context.
Basically, water, nitrogen, and carbon are constantly recycled from one form to another, from one storage area to another. Water is stored in ice sheets, oceans, lakes, rivers, subterranean aquifers, and the atmosphere. Nitrogen is a major constituent of the atmosphere and is converted to nitrates through processes in the soil, which are then absorbed by plants. Carbon is stored primarily as coal, oil, natural gas, dead organic matter such as humus in the soil, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and as living organisms themselves.
There has always been, and always will be, the same amount of water, nitrogen, and carbon on earth. Nature, in its wisdom, maintains the proper balance between storage areas to sustain terrestrial life for the long-term.
Water is transferred from one state to another through evaporation and condensation: ice melts and water freezes or boils. Human beings ingest nitrogen, essential for the production of proteins, directly by eating plants or indirectly through the consumption of animals which feed on plants. Photosynthesis utilizes the energy of sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into the organic matter of plants, algae, and plankton, whereby carbon enters the human food chain, since animals cannot photosynthesize carbon directly. The burning of fossil fuels returns carbon directly to the atmosphere, where it regulates earth’s temperature.
This, in a nutshell, describes the fundamental natural cycles that have sustained life since the Big Bang, or shortly thereafter. As capitalism evolved, however, human intervention in the ecological cycles has become more pronounced. People permanently settled in large numbers where there was too much water or not enough water, for example, and crops were planted which depleted the soil of nutrients faster than nature could replenish them. Advances in engineering, chemistry, and technology empowered us to overcome such obstacles by shifting the balance between storage areas from what nature seemingly intended to what is most expedient and profitable for humans.
For example, the depletion of aquifer, the drawing and damming of rivers, and the pollution of waterways to accommodate the growth of large cities and the agricultural lands which feed them, has dramatic repercussions. Water pumps now run dry in some places in the Great Plains, threatening the agricultural future of America’s bread basket. The amount of fresh water flowing into San Francisco Bay has been reduced by nearly half because of diversions of the Sacramento River, allowing salt water intrusions from the Pacific Ocean and pressuring fisheries, crop lands, and the drinking water supply of San Francisco and Oakland. The Ganges, Yangtze, and Nile Rivers are thoroughly fouled for much of their courses by human, commercial, and agricultural waste, yet serve as mostly untreated water sources for hundreds of millions of people, including those in the cities of Calcutta, Shanghai, and Cairo.
For almost three hundred years, nitrogen, in the form of grain stubble, pea vines, bean plants, leaf litter, clover, and animal waste, was plowed under by farmers to replenish soils. Replenishing the nitrate reservoir in the soil with vegetable matter and animal excreta, together with crop rotation, formed the backbone of the agrarian revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, without which the industrial revolution could not have occurred.
Today, poultry and livestock are raised in small areas, sometimes unconscionably small, and animal manure is a problem rather than a solution. Crop farms, on the other hand, frequently confront nitrate deficits, which are made up by artificial fertilizers. Storm water runoff containing nitrates often contaminates aquifers and human drinking supplies. Excess nitrates reduce the ability of blood to carry oxygen; consequently, the nitrate content of drinking water must be monitored to avoid health risks to infants, nursing mothers, and those with heart and lung disease. Fertilizer use also releases high levels of nitrogen into the atmosphere where it falls back to earth as smog or acid rain, killing fish and forests. Another consequence of human intervention in the nitrogen cycle is that our entire food chain has been “stretched” in the sense that food purchased in a supermarket was likely produced many, many miles away. “Food miles” now refer to the distance food has to travel to the consumer; the greater the food mileage, the greater the environmental costs.
As with other natural cycles, carbon is transferred from one storage place to another, and the big problem at the present time is that more carbon is put into the atmosphere than is taken out of it. According to a United Nations’ study, “Concentrations of methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are now far higher than their natural range over many thousands of years before industrialization (1750)”. Human activity is incriminated, especially the burning of fossil fuels and tropical rain forests. Since carbon dioxide is transparent to light but rather opaque to heat rays, solar radiation can arrive unobstructed to the earth’s surface, but its radiation back into space is hindered, creating a greenhouse effect.
Average global temperatures have risen steadily since the end of World War II. Many glaciers are receding, and many subtropical flora and fauna are moving further north to avoid heat and drought and are reproducing earlier in spring.
Climate change is worrisome because of the uncertainty of the consequences. If glaciers continue to melt, there will likely be a substantial rise in sea levels. Many of the world’s major cities, including New York, London, Amsterdam, Miami, Buenos Aires, Mumbai, Guangzhou, Osaka, and Alexandria to mention but a few, would be under increased risk of flooding. Moreover, the cold glacier melt water entering into the warmer Atlantic Ocean could disrupt the Gulf Stream, which now ensures relatively moderate temperatures in Western Europe and eastern North America. Agricultural practices worldwide would be severely stressed by continued climate change, and major adjustments would have to be made.
When considered in terms of the water, nitrogen, and carbon cycles, the current outlook for sustainability is not promising. When a person buys a house or drives a car or shops at a supermarket, he or she impacts the ecological cycles which sustain all life. The cumulative impact of millions of people performing the basic motions of contemporary life creates an imbalance, a disequilibrium within the natural cycles.
We place our faith in the logic of supply and demand of the capitalist market to restore some ecological balance. As oil and coal supplies are exhausted, for example, we expect prices of these resources will increase, providing incentives for businesses to harness nonexhaustabile forms of energy, such as wind, solar, and tidal power. Similarly, as gasoline prices increase, market incentives will prompt commuters to shift to mass transit and developers to shift to higher-density, energy-conserving forms of development. Or recycling will provide the answer. Or emissions trading to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere. Or other market-based attempts to balance supply and demand.
Unfortunately, balancing supply and demand is not the same as balancing the fundamental ecological cycles. All of the things people demand and which the market is determined to supply – automobiles, homes, appliances, vacations, and so on – require huge resource inputs. Furthermore, capitalist enterprises will continue to degrade the environment as long as they are not forced to fully pay for the environmental costs they impose. The clean-up of water pollution and toxic wastes become corporate operating costs, which are passed on to consumers as higher prices. Government expenses to enforce anti-pollution laws get passed on as taxes. Human suffering as a result of foul air, contaminated drinking water, disturbing noises, increased truck traffic, and noxious odors – as well as associated medications, doctor and hospital visits, and stress – are not compensated. Nor are the costs of global warming compensated: constructing defenses against rising sea levels, adjusting agriculture, migrating to less harsh climates, and so on. Capitalism is able to expand in part because many of the benefits that accrue to individual industries are paid for collectively through, for example, taxes to support environmental cleanup and public health insurance.
Capitalism, in essence, cannot reproduce itself without constant expansion and is therefore inimical to sustainability. Energy may be renewable, but other natural resources are not; unless you can overturn the laws of physics and create something out of nothing, expansion will lead to depletion of the resource base for human life. Ideas of slowing global growth in the absence of war or calamity or recession, smoothing the uneven development of different geographic areas, and converging incomes between the haves and have-nots are oversimplified. The less-developed nations and regions may have human and natural assets, but the more-developed areas make all the rules for production and consumption and create all the metrics for measuring progress, based on what best serves their interests.
Similarly, many opponents of suburban sprawl in the U.S. advocate for a full accounting of the costs to extend and maintain infrastructure, utilities, schools, and services for new development, particularly the potential impact on property taxes. They argue that any costs that would lead to tax increases should be borne by developers and users. The cost-benefit analyses or financial impact analyses, however, apply the growth-centric assumptions and mathematics of neo-classical economics to decision making and have yet to incorporate the new patterns of living envisioned by sustainability.
The hundred year history of the mass produced automobile in the United States is an example of what sustainability is up against. Each decade of automobile manufacturing brought innovations so a driver could drive longer distances, more safely, and in greater comfort. Extensive paved road systems now connect just about every destination and are lined with gas stations, restaurants, motels, and other conveniences. Today’s cars have navigation aids, entertainment devices, and built-in safety features. With each passing decade, a driver was able to use a gallon of gas far more economically than previously. American car makers bought parts and raw materials overseas to keep the price of automobiles low to sell more vehicles. In other words, as innovation and efficiency increased the productivity of automobile travel, businesses and governments reinvested the gains in more consumption. As a result, transportation became overemphasized in public decision making in the United States (something we will explore later), the global market for cars exploded, and pressures on the environment soared. New fuel sources and engine and body designs are being developed, but no one sees a viable alternative to personal cars.
Cars, after all, represent better access to work, school, friends, medical care, and leisure opportunities. And who doesn’t want to improve the quality of their lives? This is a goal of both capitalism and sustainability, but, in the case of automobiles, we see how easily sustainability becomes subservient to capitalism.