The hard truth about sustainability. There’s no room for profit in our future.

Discarded Earth

So the other day, a friend of mine got asked to consult on a project for a sustainability centre. He invited me along to contribute, knowing that I’ve expressed some good ideas on the subject in the past. The meeting went well and I got to chase and catch some chickens, which is always a fun thing to do. Afterwards my brain got ticking away on some old issues that I haven’t really thought about in quite a while.

I say ‘old’ issues, because I was thinking about this stuff many years ago, even though it only now seems to be seeping into the general consciousness of society. The good thing about re-thinking old thoughts is that I can now look at them with a whole wealth of new information and understanding that I have learned since the last time I pondered them. Funny how I’ve come up with exactly the same answer as I did then. Basically, in a nut shell, we’re screwed!

As I was pondering the concept of sustainability, it hit me that while we are living in a society that worships the “profit” god, there can be no sustainability. I can already hear peoples protests out there: “But we can be sustainable and make a profit, we can recycle our water and paper and lessen our carbon output” Well that is going to help, but it’s not going to solve the problem.

Let’s take a quick look at what “sustainability” really is. At its basic level it means to conserve an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources. To take it a little bit further it means using energy that is renewable. Like wind or solar rather than fossil fuels that have a finite supply. It also means using raw materials in the things we make that are not only replaceable but also can be recycled or broken back down into base elements once discarded; like biodegradable substances.

Trees are a great example. They can be grown fairly easily and quickly and when the products they are made of, such as paper, are discarded, they break down fairly easily without any negative side effects on the environment. Unless, of course, they have been treated with something nasty, which usually they have.

By now, I’m sure that most of you are already aware of this stuff and quite possibly doing something about it like recycling your waste, conserving water and where possible using that, so called, “green energy” that all the energy suppliers like to tell us about and charge us more for. But I’m not going to go down that path. At least not today.

Ok so now that the basics are out of the way, in order for me to explain how profit, on a financial level, is working against sustainability, I first must break it all down into the very core elements. In its simplest form, what we are talking about is energy. Energy that is used to create fuels, products and stuff in general and the energy that is left over from the creation processes as well as the discarded creations at the end of the cycle.

Money is nothing more than an exchange of energy on a level that we can relate to. For example, if I were to create a painting (I wouldn’t because I can’t draw, but go with me here) it has taken up my energy to make. I give that energy a monetary value based on the time and effort put into the creation and then sell it for that price. But I also have to take into account the energy put into the raw materials that I used. Even though I didn’t create them myself, I transfered energy to the creators of the canvas and paints by paying them with money that represented the energy they had spent and so on…

I think that money is a great invention and a perfect way to represent the energy we spend working on things. However, somewhere along the line greed and corruption got into the equation (I’m guessing probably from its inception). As soon as someone decided to give their energy a monetary value plus a little bit more for profit, we were all doomed. And to understand that you need to understand one of the basic laws of physics. The law of conservation of energy which states that energy can change forms but not be created or destroyed.

The simplest way to explain this is by turning on a light switch. The electricity, surges through the element in the globe transforming into heat. Some of the heat radiates out while some of it transforms into light and so on. The energy keeps getting transformed into other forms of energy, but never disappears, although once past the light and heat stage, it is generally so watered down by other energies in the atmosphere that we are unaware of where, exactly it goes.

So with this ‘law’ in mind, if you are making a profit, which is actually a profit of energy, then where did it come from? Remember that energy can not be created or destroyed. If you have made a profit, does this then mean that you have taken more than your fair share of energy? At who’s expense? If you have extra it must then mean that someone or something has less.

I’m sure by now, some of you are catching on, but let’s continue. You may think that if someone is paying extra for something to cover the energy used plus the profit, then that is their choice and the profit is justified. That person, the “end user” is choosing to pay the price asked for and could always say no. But in today’s western society it is rarely the end user that pays for the profit. In fact the end user is usually getting the product at a heavily discounted price, much below cost price.

I’m sure you’re wondering how that is even possible. Allow me to continue. Basically there are two ways to generate a profit. The first, and simplest way, is to raise the price to the end user. But the end user these days is just as greedy as the suppliers and the manufacturers, and demands the pricing be kept low. This way the end user can stay in the ‘profit zone’ too. The other way to generate profit is to cut costs. It sounds simple enough and far less insidious than it actually is.

A product takes a certain amount of energy to create. No matter what!

A little equation I learned a long time ago is that to make something you can have any two out of three elements; TIME, QUALITY or MONEY (energy, in keeping with this article.) You can have any two but it is not possible to have all three. For example, you can make something quickly and at a high quality but it will take a lot of money or energy. Or you could make something cheap and maintain the high quality but it’s going to take a lot more time. I’ve never come across a situation that broke this rule.

Cutting costs on paper is a way to break this rule; in reality it doesn’t work that way. If, for instance, a company decides to fire some of its workforce to “cut costs” it then expects the remaining employees to pick up the slack and work harder for the same amount of money. Basically they have pushed the cost of production onto someone else and off their books. The employees that now have to work harder and longer, now put more of their own energy into creating the same product with no extra compensation.

To put it in its simplest terms, the company has stolen energy from its employees to create an excess of energy, or profit, for itself. But it doesn’t stop there.

If a company takes something from the Earth in the form of raw materials, this too is recognised as energy. To be sustainable the company involved needs to replace this energy. If for instance the company takes trees to make a product out of wood, then the company needs to replace the trees taken in order to have a zero impact. Of course a tree takes time to grow which requires an enormous amount of energy, so the company actually needs to plant a great deal more trees than it actually cuts down to maintain balance and be fully sustainable. If a company is using other raw materials it can get a lot more complicated. Some raw elements such as fossil fuels can take millions of years to create and require levels of energy beyond our comprehension.

So, in the pursuit of profit, many companies take the raw materials from the Earth without making the repayment; they steal it! So now, not only are the employees paying for the product to be made but so too is the Earth, our home. The corporate term for this process is called “Cost Externalising” and it is a socio-economic practice that is happening the world over.

Society and indeed our very planet cannot continue indefinitely, under the strains applied by the pursuit of profit. It’s time we started taking responsibility for our actions. Not only should we be paying the true price for things we must also repay an enormous debt that we and our ancestors have accumulated over the last several hundred years. When the planetary debt collectors come knocking, they wont mess around. We could very possibly end up paying the ultimate price. Complete extinction.


About JC

I am a filmmaker, photographer, artist and philosopher. I have spent my whole life observing, analysing and learning from the world around me and the people that populate it. I now shares his knowledge and wisdom here on this blog
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Peter Burgess

    Dear Colleagues

    I like this essay. There are, of course, a lot of people who also like essays like this, but in my view they will never get any traction unless something is done to improve the prevalent system of metrics about socio-economic progress and performance. At the moment the only ubiquitous metrics are those associated with money profit, stock market prices and GDP growth … nothing about the value destruction and value adding that is associated with human activity in all its forms!

    Peter Burgess