A Yet Simpler Take on Making Sustainability Self-Sustaining

The point of focusing on sustainability is to balance human interests with a long term view of life on earth. Depleting resources as though they will be always available plainly is no way to plan for a safe and pleasant future. But it seems to me something is missing in the way we approach sustainability. Every time I see any efforts aimed at rebalancing resource usage with a long term view of the Earth’s capacity to support us, what do I see? I see solutions that cost a lot, and people saying that the costs are the price we have to pay for the mistakes that have been made, and for a viable future. And so I also see a lot of procrastination, delays, and reluctance to commit to sustainable policies and practices.

Why? Because, first, there are a great many people who cannot afford to live in the world as it is, right now, simply bearing their existing day-to-day costs. Even in the richest countries, huge proportions of people live hand to mouth, or very nearly so. Second, it’s hard to detect and punish freeloaders. Many people, companies, and governments are willing to hold off committing to sustainability in the hope that some technological fix will come along and spare them avoidable costs.

So, my question is, and I do not say this at all in jest or with any sense of irony or sarcasm: how do we make sustainability fun and profitable? How can we make sustainability economically self-sustaining? How can we make sustainability into a growth industry?

My answer to those questions is, by improving the quality of information on sustainability impacts. What does that mean? Why should that have anything to do with making sustainability fun and profitable? What improving the quality of information on sustainability impacts means is measuring it well, using methods and models that have been used in research and practice for more than 90 years. What we need is a Human, Social, and Natural Capital Metric System. or an International System of Units for Human, Social, and Natural Capital.

As we all know from the existing SI (metric system) units, high quality information makes it much easier to communicate value. Easier communication means lower transaction costs, and lower transaction costs mean that it becomes very inexpensive to find out how much of a sustainability impact is available, and what quality it is. High quality information enables grassroots bottom up efforts coordinating the decisions and behaviors of everyone everywhere. Managers would be able to dramatically improve quality in domains of human, social, and environmental value the way they do now for manufactured value. And investors would be able to reward innovation in those areas in ways they currently cannot.

For instance, with high quality sustainability impact measures, you’d be able to buy shares of stock in a new global carbon reduction effort that realistically projects it is on track to reverse climate change back its 1980 status. If someone came out with a better carbon reduction product that would make it possible to get the job done faster or at lower cost, we would have the information we need to quickly shift the flow of resources to the better product.

Speaking to other components of the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals, maybe people need to wonder why they cannot go buy 250 units of additional literacy right now? Why can’t you get a good price on a specific amount of literacy gain for your ten-year-old child from a few minutes of competitive shopping? And while you’re at it, maybe you could catch a special sale on 470 units of improved physical functionality for your great aunt who just had a hip replacement. Oh, she doesn’t need it because she’s got herself listed in a health capital investment bond likely to pay a 6% return? Well, maybe you should sink some funds into one of those contracts!

To take up the SDG 16.1 issue, if efforts to reduce armed violence were measured with the same level of information quality as kilowatt hours, that form of social capital product would be available in market transactions just the same way manufactured capital products like electricity are now. Conversely, your personal efforts at reducing armed violence, or improving someone’s literacy, or helping your great aunt with gains in physical functionality—all of these are investments of your skills and abilities that will pay back cash value to you. And because having fun with the kids, and getting out for recreational activities, are healthful things to do, enjoyment also should pay dividends.

Maybe this focus on fun and profit in making sustainability economically self-sustaining might finally find some traction for efforts in this area. Sustainability commerce could be a way of talking about these issues that will speak to matters more directly and practically. We’ll see how that works out as I try it on people in the near future.

 

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com.
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