Sustainability is an important concept, but there has been some discussion about whether it is economically viable. While there is some pressure to bring sustainable methods to the forefront immediately, a more balanced course of action may be called for. Douglas Healy explores the concept of sustainability and its economic ramifications.
Douglas Healy on Sustainability
Sustainability is defined as a development meeting the needs of the present without compromising the future. Sustainability also means preserving and protecting “natural capital,” or the products and systems of nature.
Sustainability supports economic, human, and ecological health. Sustainable practices recognize that resources do not come in infinite supplies and that they should be protected even when profits are at stake. However, the overall health of the economy remains important when judging whether a project is sustainable.
Supply and Demand
The most basic foundation of any economy is supply and demand. Demand drives supply, turning the economic engines. This process can be performed sustainably if natural resources are used thoughtfully.
For example, there is a great demand for electricity. The supply must increase to the point where enough energy is being produced. Supplying energy sustainably means looking for alternative sources of power since fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas are finite resources. Companies can use solar, wind, and hydropower to create sustainable energy.
Problems with Sustainable Energy Development
However, there are some significant disadvantages to sustainable energy as well. The primary problem with sustainable energy is the high cost of conversion. At first, sustainable energy requires a large outlay of money. Changing consumption habits and changing the infrastructure comes with a significant cost. While these energy sources may pay for themselves in the long run, prohibitively high costs may prevent them from being adopted.
In the past, the construction industry has been notorious for its wasteful use of natural resources. Wood, stone, plastic, and other materials were discarded into the general waste stream. There are newer programs that encourage construction companies to think about their waste stream and to reuse or recycle materials that would otherwise enter a landfill.
Companies can turn their wood waste into pellets for stoves to heat consumers’ homes. They can reuse broken stones by turning them into smaller pieces or gravel for landscape applications. They can recycle all of the cardboard and plastic that they can salvage from their operations.
There are cons to sustainable construction and green buildings. The major problem with sustainable construction is the higher cost of materials and labor. It can be harder to get funding for these projects since the methods and technology are newer and not as well-understood.
Finding builders with experience in green construction may be more difficult, and these workers demand higher pay. Finally, sustainable construction may be deceptive. Some “green” materials are not truly advantageous, and project managers need to be sure that what they are buying makes a good impact on the environment.
Sustainable energy is one of the most commonly known goals that will eventually come to the forefront. Ceasing the use of polluting fossil fuels is one of its major provisions. When fossil fuels are used in certain situations, care is taken to make sure that the equipment burning the fuels is as efficient as possible, to avoid overusing the material.
Alternative energy sources are sustainable in nature. Many companies find that they are able to sell extra power back to the local utility, meaning that they make a small profit on their energy consumption.
Sustainable energy is not without its downsides. A serious problem that may come along with sustainable energy is a loss of redundancy in the system. If a sustainable energy plant fails for some reason, there will be no traditionally fueled plant to take up its slack.
Another difficulty with renewable energy is that it is non-dispatchable. This means that they are not under the direct control of the operator. They only generate energy when the sun shines or when the wind blows.
This means that battery capabilities need to be built into the system at a great cost. The capricious nature of sun and wind means that there is less security in the world’s energy future.
Potential Negative Economic Impacts
One of the problems that sustainability advocates forget to consider is that there may be an unemployment problem in areas where the transformation is taking place. At any time when an entire industry is being replaced, their workforce will find themselves out in the cold. Retraining costs will be high, but energy producers should make an effort toward helping displaced employees in legacy industries.
Making the Economy Sustainable
To make the economy sustainable, many permanent changes need to be made. The goal of society as a whole has to be adjusted from producing as much as possible to being mindful of resources. Many industries, like the auto industry, are leading the way when it comes to sustainability and zero waste.
While sustainability is a worthy long-term goal, business leaders agree that a measured rollout may be the best course of action. Douglas Healy believes that all players in the world economy need to consider carefully how they can update their procedures to make their businesses more sustainable. He urges caution rather than a headlong approach in making sustainability work.