Business in a Sustainable World


How will corporations and the economy change if the public internalizes the concept that we all need to buy one tenth as much stuff and make it last ten times as long? Is the thrift store one of the big businesses of the future?

It is clear that the basic nature of business must change to achieve a sustainable world. Dave Gardner of non-profit Citizen-Powered Media (link) makes the excellent point that, in North America in particular, we have not scaled back the work week like some of the other developed countries, a move that allows for more jobs. Instead, we have worked more and more hours, and spent the extra money on luxuries, typically ecologically irresponsible ones. This is a cultural problem, and shows the huge hurdle ahead of us in the need to change American attitudes about growth and prosperity.

It has been clear for a long time that not everyone can have a summer home, a luxury SUV, or vacation in Hawaii, but the American dream as it is promoted today pushes us to have these things. There is no doubt about it – that must change if we are to achieve anything close to a sustainable economy. The media, as key promoter of cultural norms and values, must change its approach significantly to help us make the needed changes (but that’s a topic for another entry).

When we do make the needed changes, have less children, buy less stuff and make it last longer, and generally take our energy and resource use to a comfortable minimum, we can wind up with a sustainable economy in a world in which we can survive. What worries me is that we will have to go through much tougher times before everyone believes that, understands it, and achieves the commitment and will to make it happen.

We have achieved ever higher levels of productivity in the past century. Next, corporations will have to change to employ more people with shorter work weeks, as has been done in parts of Europe.  One change that would help is if corporate employee benefits, especially health care, would be taken over by the government so that they would not detract directly from corporate profits.  Taxes would undoubtedly rise, but the real question is not how much we pay in taxes, but what we get for our money.  Other countries have already shown that the average citizen can have a better life even though they are paying more taxes, but, unfortunately, there is a knee-jerk mentality about taxes and government in the U.S. that says that less government and less taxes are better for us – an assertion that is not borne out by other countries’ experiences.

Our health care system will have to be streamlined and cost-controlled, and probably either heavily regulated or put under total government control, possibly even like the military. It doesn’t look like the current system of profit-driven, independent corporations can maintain the kind of medical system that will provide optimal support for the average person. The profit motive is just too strong, and will continue to lead to many inequities.  As I have quoted many times, big corporations are like sharks — they’re not evil; they’re just eating.  Unfortunately, we have to swim with the corporate sharks, and our shark cage is in bad shape.

A healthy medical system (and economy) can not have emergency rooms full of people who can’t afford health insurance, staffed by people who themselves must struggle to be insured, and hospitals fighting bankruptcy because of it, while pharmaceutical companies and medical equipment companies rack up record profits. Workers in a top 10 medical center emergency room recently told me personally that the system is broken. They pointed to the waiting room full of insurance-less people and said they could give plenty of other evidence. Watching those people work under overload conditions, I could see that they are not there for the great living they make, but for the chance to help people in need.

Another example of the failure of our current medical system is that, if a drug that can help me grows in my back yard, it will never be researched and get FDA approval. Without that, it will not get the support of the medical establishment so that my doctor can be comfortable prescribing it for me. I have personal experience, which has made me a bit cynical, with a medical establishment that will only develop medications that will be prescribed for millions of patients and, preferably, cost $100 per dose. I haven’t seen a study to address this directly, but it is needed.

I have also read increasingly over the years of smaller subclasses of patients, numbering into the thousands and higher, who can not get a drug that is a known cure for their conditions, but not FDA approved, because the pharmaceutical companies don’t see enough money in it. A part of this is undoubtedly the high cost of obtaining approval for new drugs, but it is no secret that pharmaceutical companies, like energy companies, are among the most profitable in existence here near the turn of the millennium. I believe this is the dark side of capitalism, and reasonably seen as a failure of the system. This situation is not going to be fixed by an inefficient system of regulations, I’m afraid, but by a complete government takeover. Some endeavors, like our national highway system or national defense, just can’t be supported as profit centers or operated by competing, for-profit organizations.

As people will optimize what is measured, we will need to change what we measure in assessing business success. Financial experts will need to redesign the standards we currently use to make them favor sustainability instead of runaway growth. Corporate (and individual) behavior that hurts the environment will need to be criminalized to a much greater extent, but where will the people come from to police the situation?

Interestingly, we have a situation now that employs a lot of law enforcement people, that is essentially a complete and utter failure, and needs a complete rethinking that could free up a lot of those officials: the so-called war on drugs, into which we pour a lot of money and human lives, but which yields no productivity or improved knowledge.

The war on drugs is just a more highly developed version of the alcohol prohibition of the early 20th century. Like alcohol prohibition, it has provided organized crime with big price supports and bigger profits, prevented addicts from getting the treatment they need, and created a crime wave that has put Americans in prison at nearly double the per capita rate of any other developed country. It has also taken out of circulation some of the most effective and cost-effective medicinal compounds known up to the time when this prohibition was put in place, while some of those substances have only shown more potential as beneficial medicines as more has been learned about them. None of these conditions is a social good, and all are clear signs that the system has failed.

Why can’t we rationalize the so-called war on drugs by placing all drugs under the same control systems as we currently use for pharmaceuticals and alcohol, and retrain the workers in the Drug Enforcement Administration and other drug enforcement groups to serve in more beneficial roles, one of them being environmental police? Certainly, we can’t keep justifying more and more prisons, the expensive prosecution of current drug law breakers, and the large numbers of drug police with a system of laws and enforcement that, to date, has made no measurable dent in drug use. This seems like a great opportunity to focus our governmental resources where they can do a lot more good. Instead of a Drug Enforcement Agency we need other functions, including a government agency to push for sustainability.

Finally, it seems certain that businesses involved in recycling and conservation will play a much bigger part in our business community, which leads me to think that thrift stores will become a much bigger business, as will companies that collect paper, cloth, metal, glass, and plastic for reprocessing.

These are a few of my thoughts about how business must change, especially in North America (which I know best since I was born and raised here). I make no claim that they are comprehensive or necessarily well worked out, and I do hope you will “wise me up“, as always. It is through the generation and discussion of ideas in a public forum that we can move towards meaningful expectations and ideas that can be worked into plans and actions. And we need a lot of well thought out plans and committed actions if we are to achieve a sustainable society with minimum pain along the way.

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