A truly sustainable economic system recognizes that the human economy must be limited within the carrying capacity of Earth's remaining natural resources. In fact, many resource economists, environmental scientists, and ecologists believe that the human economy is already too large to be sustained by Earth's resources and ecosystems. If these specialists are correct, then not only is further economic growth undesirable, it may have to be reversed.
Non-sustainable economic growth occurs through a crude maximization of the flow of resources through an economy. In large part, economic growth is achieved by mining resources and environmental quality.
In contrast, sustainable development is ultimately based on the efficient use of renewable resources, which are not degraded over time. Moreover, this use occurs under conditions in which environmental quality is also protected. A sustainable economic system would have the following characteristics:
First, renewable resources must be exploited at or below their capability for renewal. Present economies are greatly dependent on the use of non-renewable resources, but these are being rapidly diminished by use. As non-renewable resources become exhausted, renewable resources will become increasingly more important in the economic system. Ultimately, sustainable economic systems must be based on the wise use of renewable resources.
Second, non-renewable resources can also be utilized in a sustainable economy. However, the rates at which non-renewable resources are utilized must be balanced by the rate at which renewable substitutes are created, that is, by growth of a renewable resource. For example, fossil fuels can only be used in a truly sustainable economy if their utilization is compensated by net growth of a renewable energy substitute—for example, by an increase in forest biomass. To discourage the use of non-renewable resources and the unsustainable mining of potentially renewable resources, it might be possible to implement a system of natural-resource depletion taxes.
Third, there must be a markedly increased efficiency of the use and recycling of non-renewable resources, aimed at extending their useful lifetime in the economic system. Information systems and new technologies will be important in achieving this increased efficiency. There must also be well-designed systems of use and management of renewable resources to ensure that these are sustainably utilized over the longer term.
Fourth, it is critical that ecological resources that are not conventionally valuated also be sustained. The use and management of natural resources for human benefits will inevitably cause declines of some species and natural ecosystems, as well as other environmental damage. However, viable populations of native species, viable areas of natural ecosystems, and other aspects of environmental quality must be preserved in an ecologically sustainable economic system. Some of these ecological values cannot be accommodated on landscapes that are primarily managed for thee harvesting and management of economic resources, and they will therefore have to be preserved in ecological reserves. These ecological values must be accommodated if an economic system is to be considered truly sustainable.
Sustainable economic systems represent a very different way of doing business, in comparison with the manner in which economies are now conducted. Sustainable development requires the implementation of a sustainable economy. To achieve this would be difficult on the short term, although the longer-term benefits to society and ecosystems would be enormous. The longer-term benefit would be achievement of an economic system that could sustain humans, other species, and natural ecosystems for a long time. However, there would be short-term pain in implementing such a system, largely associated with substantially less use of natural resources, abandonment of the ambition of economic growth, and rapid stabilization of the human population.
As a result of these short-term inconveniences, truly sustainable development would not be initially popular among much of the public, politicians, government bureaucrats, and industry. This is because individual humans and their societies are self-interested, and they think on the shorter-term. However, for the sake of future generations of humans, and for that of other species and natural ecosystems, it remains absolutely necessary that sustainable economic systems be designed and implemented.
See also Population, human.
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