Posted by: Thomas C. Esakin | July 31, 2009

A false dichotomy for Sustainable Development: A choice between economics or the environment.

A false dichotomy for Sustainable Development:

A choice between economics or the environment.

This month’s blog-spot offers a context, poses a question for our collective contemplation, and then ends with an encouragement.

In the past Saturday July 25th, 2009 edition of The Globe and Mail (a newspaper broadsheet which calls itself Canada’s National Newspaper), there was a feature, front-page, news article about the current state of the economy in Fresno County, California (see: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/how-green-was-my-valley-californias-drought/article1230646/ ).

In this news article, Fresno County was identified as facing serious economic challenges during the current global economic downturn. (Thereby joining a near countless number of other communities – both large and small – across Earth that are also experiencing the same reality).  Yet unlike many other global communities whose current economic challenges are related to the international financial crisis, Fresno County (which the feature article claims “ranks as the world’s largest agricultural area”) is said to be economically challenged due to recent USA court decisions that have benefitted Earth’s environment and some of its non-human species. (Specifically, USA court decisions benefitting a fish: the Delta smelt.)

The Delta smelt is identified as a “bellwether” species.  A bellwether or “indicator” species are those whose ill-being warns of environmental damage and ecosystem change (see:  http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_km4449/is_200510/ai_n16261268/ ).  So in actuality, the threatened survival of the Delta smelt is understood as a sign that the broader eco-system inhabited by this one species of fish is itself under threat.

This Globe and Mail news article outlines how, in an effort to protect the Delta smelt, recent USA court decisions have deeply restricted the imported water that Fresno County has, until now, quite easily accessed from other parts of California.  This “imported” water is what has enabled Fresno County farmers to actively engage in agriculture on what may otherwise be mostly non-farmable land. 

While it likely need not be said, I remind that the California agricultural sector, with its well-documented over-use of fast-dwindling water resources in the state and region, is easily and even appropriately a poster-child for (un)sustainability.

Within this Globe and Mail news article, the overall tone I perceived is captured in a quote provided from a Fresno farmer: “It’s fish versus jobs and communities.”

And this tone and quote succinctly capture one of the biggest challenges faced by practitioners of Sustainable Development.  That being, that the vast complexities of this field of Sustainability – touching, as it does, on almost every facet of human life – are so often reduced to the simplistic, even childlike, argument that humans must make a choice between either of the economy or the environment.

That is the false dichotomy.

For any one person who is honest with themselves must at least quietly acknowledge that there is no such thing as humans needing to make such a choice.

Clearly, Earth can exist without a human economy.  But let’s try and construct a human economy without Earth and its shared environment.

Human beings are on Earth, of Earth, and from the Earth.  And human economic systems flow from our species’ initial grounding in Earth.

Humans are completely reliant on Earth for our life, our well-being and our very existence.  And yet, most positively, if humans sustainably use Earth’s resources, then our human economies can also benefit for generations to come.

The question I pose for our collective contemplation is: at what point in time did human beings – or at least Westernised humans – become so disconnected from any real awareness that human lives are a part of and dependent on Earth?  This is a question worthy of serious over general exploration.

The encouragement I offer is that this situation of some humans being deluded from the reality of their dependence on Earth reminds me of the old fairy tale about the Emperor and his new suit of clothes crafted by a professed magical tailor.  The abbreviated version of the fairy tale is that the Emperor was told by the tailor that the suit he had just made for him was invisible.  The Emperor put on his newly tailored, yet supposedly invisible, suit and was most impressed by it. So impressed, in fact, that he soon went out of his palace on parade, all so that he could show his loyal subjects his new suit of invisible clothing.  All his subjects bowed as the Emperor passed them by in his complete nakedness.  For it so happened in reality that the tailor had only duped the Emperor into believing that he was wearing an invisible suit of clothes.  In actuality, the Emperor was walking about his domain completely in the nude. Some of the Emperor’s subjects, too embarrassed to speak the truth, even “ooh’d” and “ahh’d” in mock impressiveness as their Emperor walked by.  Yet, eventually, it was one lone, honest, child who had the integrity to shout out: “The Emperor has no clothes!”  To which the Emperor grasped the truth of his naked reality and ran back to his palace in shame.  Yet soon later, the Emperor had the inner fortitude to publicly thank the lone young child for her integrity in speaking the truth: especially so when all other subjects would not.

The Sustainability conversation is not about a choice between fish and jobs.  It is not a choice between the environment and economics.  And, as much and as often as some people try to so desperately frame the Sustainability conversation in this false way, we practitioners of Sustainable Development must be willing to say: 

The Emperor has no clothes!

The simple and unmistakable truth is that there can be no human economy without Earth and its environment.

And later, when this reality is again grasped by those people who had been duped by the magical arguments of economics, these same people – just like the Emperor in the fairy tale – will also offer public thanks to those now lone voices of integrity who chose to speak the truth when others would not. 

Your thoughts and reflections on this blog are always welcomed and encouraged.

Thomas

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