It is A wonder that when it comes to sustainability we “factor it in” rather than making it the centre of the argument. Unsustainable behaviour is the act of borrowing from the future, where the deficit of the future can compensate for the surplus of today, or of destroying the future state completely where compensation is not possible.
For example, the current escalating government debts need to be paid back, or at least stop growing, at some point, which means a decrease of spending (contagion) today or sometime in the future.
Current spending is unsustainable. The way we go about using the environment needs to change. We either need to replace what we destroy now at a later stage, or sacrifice it forever where this is not possible. Sustainability is the simple desire to be able to carry on doing what we do.
So if unsustainability is such a threat, why is it that we just throw it in as another business factor rather than the ultimate goal? What is it that makes us so unwilling to admit and reverse the future negative consequences of our current actions?
A large part of this is our short life spans. This includes our personal life spans, the life spans of governments or those of company boards. The ones taking the decisions today are not the ones who will bear the consequences tomorrow.
There is an inherent problem in the discounting of responsibility. We are more driven by our exposure to blame than our potential to leave a negative impact.
This statement may bring to mind outrage at a particular company or politician you know of, but hold yourself to account next time you throw a cigarette butt on the floor or buy a house in a newly cleared piece of wilderness.
It may also be that we simply presume that we will be able to fix the problem in the future through our ingenuity and ever improving technology.
This argument certainly holds water and I would propose that it is a large reason behind our behaviour; we did, after all, fix the hole in the ozone layer quite quickly, relative to when it was discovered.
But we need to be careful of this complacency because, while some problems can be fixed, others we simply do not know enough about. Our ingenuity certainly did nothing for the all-but-disappeared Lake Chad and while I have no doubt we will work our way out of this global recession, the damage would have been a lot less had we taken evasive steps earlier.
Then there are those who believe that damage to the future is not so bad, because we humans are amazingly adaptive to any situation. This may have some weight; if the young adults of tomorrow have never swum in clean water how will they know what they are missing? They won’t, but are we really a society that will accept this?
Sustainability is a key part of any economic, business or social decision yet we seem incapable of giving it a weight of importance relative to the potential consequences if it is ignored.
The problem is one of denial. We simply do not want to admit that the success of our lives today is not only due to the fruits of our labour and rewards of our intellect, but also rests on the sacrifices of those who will come after us.
But just as we cannot hold those who came before us to account, we ourselves will never be sent to the gallows for our actions and so the vicious cycle continues.
We live in a time where rational economic decisions will now be those that span generations.
Pierre Heistein is the convener for UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision Making course.