Sustainable Economic Development
Why are we always developing or researching sustainable and alternative energies? What’s missing? Is it funding? Some sort of academic, cultural, or political understanding? Or are we waiting for an unknown and unknowable new technology to appear? Perhaps we aren’t waiting for anything; change, after all, is difficult.
What’s past is comfortable. What’s past is predictable. No matter how detrimental, terrible, wonderful, or astonishing previous events were, they and the actions that caused them are known. So if change is difficult, beginnings are tenuous.
In scale and degree, climate change could dwarf any previous challenge in human history. I am not a climatologist, biologist, or physicist. I am a planning graduate student; I am just beginning my career. In class we learn how to plan sustainably and collectively with the communities we serve. We debate how to create livable places for aging baby-boomers, and what to do with those places when they are no longer needed. We discuss best development practices and how to help grow economies. We also study how to plan for rising seas and growing deserts. We are not learning about such sad events because our professors are pessimists or cynics, we learn these things because even if only one tenth of the most direst hypotheses concerning climate change come true, planners still need to plan.
Planners are less concerned with conservative or liberal values as we are with economic stability and growth, environmental predictability, and human sustainability. The economic and cultural paradigm shifts needed to mitigate the effects of climate change are daunting, and yet, I am hopeful: I grew up in the American middle class. No matter the political, philosophical, or religious beliefs, people in the middle class share one wish, to stay middle class or move up. We crave stability. Therefore, as a future planner and child of a certain tax bracket, I view climate change as a threat to stability. Following is why I am hopeful.
Since beginning my work with APA, I regularly come across stories about the effects sustainability has had on development and economic growth, and these stories are all similar. There appears to be a pattern of cities and regions adopting sustainable practices while growing their economies. Sustainability can make money, and continually does; the definition of sustainability after all, is to “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.”
Say you own a small business and you have been using the same economic model for the last twenty years. Like all models there is a certain amount of economic risk within your model; however, unbeknownst to you the risk associated with your model increases the longer you use it. There would be a point when the model would no longer be economically sustainable, and you could not know when you have reached this point. You would still make a profit for a while, but your debt would continue to accrue and eventually cause your business to no longer be profitable.
The world’s preeminent economists believe that your model’s costs will soon overtake and quickly dwarf the benefits associated with the paradigm, though they are not sure when this will happen. They warn you to modify your business plan and yet you persist, believing that perhaps they are wrong. You tell yourself that there is a chance that nothing will happen and things will continue as they always have, you claim outright that they are wrong, that you know better. You are not an economist, so you are at best deceiving yourself and at worst mad.
Markets do fail; otherwise recessions would be theory rather than historical precedent. Ecologies can fail too, a forest can whither and a swamp can become desert. Small scale ecological collapses probably happen more often than we know, because ecologies can and do recover. Unfortunately, if a certain level of toxicity cannot be expelled or cleaned out than recovery is very unlikely, and collapse is eminent. The best scientists in the world are nearly unanimous, something is happening to the Earth’s climate and human activities are causing it. Yet we persist.
Sustainable Economic Development presents an alternative. It proposes the management of our economy in an economically productive and sustainable manner, a new economic paradigm. Collapse is difficult after all, and history tells us that human societies are not immune. This new paradigm will entail an assessment of where we fit in the world and what impacts we have on the systems that sustain us; it will mean admitting that resources are indeed scarce and that we must manage rather than exploit them. I am hopeful because we have the tools and understanding to maintain our economies sustainably now, it will only take a little change.
The American Planning Association (APA), with the support of the U.S. Department of State, promotes urban planning as a tool to foster sustainable, climate-proof development across the Americas. APA leads activities and programs designed to advance institutional capacity and improve long-term access to planning expertise and technical assistance in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Sustainable Cities Collective