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For some folks, protecting our natural resources isn’t enough to convince them that sustainability is a good, important thing.  When you tell them that we need to save our parks, streams, and air for the future, they don’t buy it.  It’s either an overreaction or a scare tactic to bilk them out of their hard-earned money.  They feel the sustainability movement is all a threat to the economy and that it’s anti-business.

But what they will be interested to know is that sustainability is actually also about strengthening the economy and financial security.

I’ll break this down to a sound bite later, but first, here we go:

Sustainability establishes a framework that enables people to live and flourish independent from other people or organizations that would otherwise profit from that would-be dependency, particularly as the resources decline and dependency rises.

I know, that’s a mouthful.  Just hang on.

Profiting from a product or service is all good and well, but when that product or service is or becomes an essential factor in the general population’s everyday survival, that’s exploitation and that defies our natural rights, namely personal security and personal liberty, as we are no longer free to move or function without paying another entity to allow us to do so.  A couple hundred years ago we fought a war against the British Empire to stop that BS from happening and then we wrote down some rules to make sure it didn’t happen again.

But I digress.  Let’s look at the lumber industry as an example.  We need wood.  We need it to build our homes and furniture.  We need it for paper products.  We use it to make tools, utensils and many other things.  Wood is good.

But let’s say you’re in the timber business.  Your goal is to make as much money as you can from selling wood.  In business, the price of your product is checked by competition, because if somebody else comes in and starts selling the same product, the supply increases and customers will gravitate to the best price.  Theoretically that’s why capitalism can be such a good thing.  It forces products, services, and production to evolve while seeking the ideal price point for the consumer.

Anti-trust laws exist so that a whole industry can’t get together and manipulate prices thereby destroying the free market, the effectiveness of competition, and what those financially focused folks might like to call the American way.

OK, well, what if an industry had a product that was a natural resource and therefore had a supply that was dictated by the limitations of how much the planet had to offer?  In the case of timber the financial status of the industry is (at first) increasingly better off as the supply becomes more and more limited because then they can charge more for their product.  So, if somebody wants to make as much money as he can in the shortest amount of time, it’s in his short term best interest not to replenish that supply.  See how that works? Squeeze the supply so you can inflate your prices.  Pretty sweet.

But eventually, as the lumber guys get exponentially richer, the supply will be depleted.  That may be what they call “pro business” for the short term, but it is not sustainable.  True and honest pro business efforts are considerate of the longterm interests of business.

Sustainability requires that the lumber industry harvest with restraint and plant new trees as they are harvested.   That way the planet stays a little greener, yes, but it also means the industry itself can continue to succeed indefinitely and therefore make more money in the long run.

The guy who could see that he personally had more money to gain by depleting the supply may be upset about that, but other people who share the planet with him and the people who will still need jobs when he’s retired and drinking piña coladas on a yacht will be pretty happy that there are still trees around to help us breath, and if breathing’s not that important to you, we’ll also be able to continue making money from trees (in more ways than one).

Alright, so your financially focused sister-in-law hears you out, but then says, “OK, hippy, then why does my buddy who has an MBA and owns the bate ‘n tackle on Main tell me that sustainability threatens his business and my state representative who has a JD agrees with him?”

Well, because of that quarterly returns issue again.  For the business owner, he’s most interested in making as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time.  The reason this is becoming an increasingly popular philosophy in some parts is because it’s becoming more and more important to be wealthy if you ever want to be wealthy.  So, as a business person, if your aspiration is to make more and more money, you gotta get in while the gettin’s good.  But if he’s a small business owner and is just concerned about paying the rent and feels that sustainability may close down his business, then it’s probably because the business he’s in is approaching it’s sustainable limits.  So, in the case of the bate ‘n tackle, the fish supply may be so depleted that in order to rescue the industry, limitations need to be made that will in the present be detrimental to existing business.  It sucks.  No two ways about it.  But it’s happening because someone didn’t step in earlier who knew the importance of sustainability.  In other words, his business is in trouble not because someone is pushing for sustainability now; it’s in trouble because no one pushed for sustainability earlier.

As for that legislator, well, her objective is to get elected.  She’s going to say whatever she needs to say to get those hard working Americans with all that money to vote for her in the next election cycle.  She knows that the best way for her to ensure that she’s still got a job legislating in four years, is if she’s an incumbent tomorrow.

I know that’s an awful lot of words for your skeptical uncle to put up with, so here’s that sound bite that might help him digest it a little better:

Sure you can eat all your chickens tonight, and it will be so good that you’ll eat until your sick.  But in a couple days, when you’re finally hungry again, don’t be surprised when you wake up and there are no eggs for breakfast.

But what does all of that have to do with our cities and towns and how we regular folks live?  A lot, and here’s why:

Remember how some of those lumber guys would love to deplete the lumber supply so that they could make big, quick money as the supply dried up?  And remember how it was important to step in and make sure we continued have trees around for the future by restrained harvesting and re-planting?  Well, what happens when there’s a product that cannot be replenished?

I’ll explain more next time, but here’s a hint:  oil.

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