Defining Your Sustainable Philosophy

By PSU EcoMerge Capstone - 4:07 PM

Spatial and temporal equity are essential factors with regards to any sustainable philosophy, but what factors lead to and are consequences of its implementation? If sustainability does generate the most net utility and even necessitates the long-term survival of the human species, how must a society compensate for and be persuaded to abide by its policies?

It is human nature to seek out short-term prosperity and ‘discount’ future needs, particularly if the benefits of the self-sacrifice are completely intangible. For example, the effects of global climate change will likely not dramatically affect anyone alive today, therefore, why should we even care? For intergenerational equity and even equality to exist, market incentives must drive consumer demand on the micro and macro scale.

The social constructs required for any significant movement towards sustainability encompasses social cohesion at profound and historically supreme levels. It must be of singular importance starting from the individual and the regional population, up through the business and industrial sectors, and onwards to the international community.

The economy represents perhaps the most critical component of an implementation strategy. For the common person, the effect on their pocketbook embodies their most significant and palpable concern, for which the vast majority are not willing to negotiation. Therefore, every strategy should avoid the two primary types of market failures: the destruction of public goods and externalities.

The destruction of public goods is a crucial element for sustainability. The Tragedy of the Commons explains that unregulated extraction of a finite resource may be advantageous in the short-term, but overexploitation can be devastating in the long run. The ‘tragedy’ is that each individual enterprise is utilizing a finite resource of which many are dependant, thus, its depletion has far-reaching consequences.

Externalities, or the indirect rippling effect(s) of an action onto a third party, can negatively impact numerous facets of the environment and a sustainable philosophy. For example, an oil refinery may reap the most profit by dumping waste byproducts into nearby waterways. But subsequently, this pollution may adversely affect agriculture downstream that depends on clean water to nourish its crops. In this sense, by ignoring the externalities of their enterprise, the oil refinery maximizes market success by reducing their costs to the consumer. In the current market-based capitalist society, such action may be frowned upon, but competition encourages, if not necessitates it.

Currently, the “shadow price” as its known (i.e. – the ‘real’ cost of a product as defined by its externalities), does not trickle its way down to the consumer, but rather gets swallowed-up by the unfortunate third party bystander. This means that consumers are benefiting from a less costly product whose production may encompass immoral practices that are harmful to the environment. More significantly however, these consumers purchase that product because it is less expensive, thereby encouraging companies to ignore their externalities.

This truism resides on the fact that for sustainability to achieved and market failures to be avoided internalization of these externalities must be imposed by legislative policy. This would discourage consumers from purchasing expensive and environmentally destructive products and consequently encourage producers to pursue environmentally friendly and sustainable alternatives.

There is no perfect method for the implementation of a long-term sustainable solution. Significant social, economic, and moral challenges must first be overcome before the Tragedy of the Commons may be alleviated. While the most successful strategies will be implemented at the global level, inspiration must first hail from individual action.

For further insight into the tragedy of the commons:

For Further insight into Externalities:

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