What stops us from being sustainable?: Part 1

By Georgia Randall, GSD Competition Prizewinner

Sustainable development is the improvement of systems that is conducted without the depletion of natural resources, and maintains a natural environmental equilibrium. 

We live in a materialistic, money-obsessed, avaricious society where if you don’t own the latest technology or have the most expensive brands, socially, you’re ‘missing out’. Moreover, to be a developed and powerful nation, money mustn’t be in short supply, so, for the modern-day population, money is at the heart of many decisions. Also, for many poorer persons, earning money is much more necessary than protecting the environment because of the demand they face to afford essentials. This need for necessities, no matter the environmental cost and the overindulgence of the higher classes, fights against sustainability which is why I believe that desire for money is undoubtedly the answer to this question.

Culture for many countries, mainly those developed, is orientated around eating food and having a banquet of produce to choose from. Farmers, forced by money-driven supermarkets, who I think will do anything to gain more profit for their shareholders, have to utilise the cheapest farming techniques rather than consider sustainability. The development of their business comes at the expense of the health of our environment. Firstly, farmers especially hurt our environment by using monoculture techniques: only nine plant species account for two-thirds of the US’s total crop production. This brings economic efficiency and expansion because farmers can spend minimal time on the fields for the maximum yield due to the use of agricultural equipment (which is designed for monocultural purposes); only having to utilise one type of fertiliser (which is less complicated and time consuming); and buying seeds and pesticides in bulk (which is far cheaper). However, these monoculture benefits mean that crops take disproportionate amounts of specific nutrients from the soil, leaving an inadequacy of the nutrient in demand. This could be solved by rotational cropping but currently, only 3-7 percent of farmers carry out crop rotation. Subsequently, the farmers cannot use the field for their crops once nutrients are  depleted so they deforest some more well-nourished land. Deforestation means that less carbon is stored in the biomass, creating a larger carbon store in the atmosphere. If polyculture or rotational cropping was adopted, incidence of forest fires would reduce, sustaining rural landscapes; species such as the polar bear affected by the rise in temperature wouldn’t face extinction; and flooding would decline meaning that less polluting resources, such as cement, would be used up to rebuild the demolished infrastructure (all due to global warming). Yet, the greed for money from farmers means that they tarnish the planet just for a profit.

Although if legislation created by the government meant that all farmers were given a certain amount of land to use proportionate to the volume of food they manufacture, it would encourage farmers to take better care of their land and force supermarkets to assimilate the extra cost of using these new, necessary agricultural methods that sustain the limited land the farmers would have.

Additionally, the garment industry is the second largest consumer of the world’s water supply. Although water is recycled throughout the world, it is a close system: meaning that water isn’t really being inputted into the planet. Consequently, the fashion trade causes a disequilibrium in the water cycle, meaning that there will be less water for future generations. Most fashion items aren’t sustainable because it takes 10,000-20,000 litres of water to cultivate 1kg of raw cotton, and textile treatment and dyeing causes 20% of water pollution. This means that water is being used up when there is not an input into the water cycle, so we won’t sustain enough unpolluted water to keep enough for future generations. It also means that there is not enough water for trees to absorb for photosynthesis, reducing their growth rate so they then take in less carbon dioxide. Therefore, global warming happens, bringing many other unsustainable factors such as animal extinction. But, fortunately there is a solution where many developing brands are coming forward with clothes that are recycled. Nevertheless, the ethically sourced products and the fact that workers are paid a fair wage, forces the retail price to be higher than ‘normal’ products. Regrettably, the greed of people to spend less of their disposable income rather than using it for the common-good means that the sustainable development of clothes is prevented, because without profit, the sustainable business can’t grow. According to a recent UK survey, there was never more than 12% of women of any age group who prefer to purchase clothes sustainably.

Tax added onto unsustainable products would deter people away from purchasing wasteful fashion items. Also, if young people were educated on the effect of unsustainable clothing production, and if influencers promoted the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ motto, throw-away fashion would happen far less.

Another monetary barrier to sustainable development is mining (much of which is in Guyana) due to that fact that it reduces ecosystems and the health of the animal inhabitants. Much of mining is preventable: 78% of our annual gold supply is made into jewellery. The fact that jewellery is not an essential item means that most of the 1.32kg of mercury/1 kg of gold produced by small-scale miners did not have to be released into rivers! This polluting process devastates many animals as it affects their reproductive systems and sometimes kills. Subsequently, populations of these species, such as fish, will substantially decline through this long-term impact: mercury can be passed onto the organism’s offspring. Nonetheless, small-scale miners in the Amazon have to keep on contaminating the water system because they lack the money to employ the required use of treatments such as filters and end-of-pipe techniques. Hence, they can only develop their business unsustainably.

I propose that filters should be granted by the government for free. If these were to be used and regional river mercury levels were tested annually, a bonus could be given if the mercury levels were low. This incentivises the miners to keep the aquatic environment clean of mercury whilst generating profit. 

Finally, at a national scale, the greed for money can exceed the importance of sustainable development for many governments. For example, developing nations such as China say that they should be exempt from some sustainable agreements because currently developed countries like the UK used fossil fuels and unsustainable techniques to become the powerful nation that it is. At COP-26, China refused to agree to limit methane emissions. By declining this international rule, it allows for the cheap extraction and combustion of fossil fuels for economic development and profit rather than spending money on developing sustainable energy methods. 60 percent of China’s energy production is from coal. Reports from China have explained their reasoning for using coal: “it is more stable and faces less variability of wind and solar power”. Obviously, by there being more accessible electricity, businesses can grow and economic development is more likely to occur at a faster rate. Furthermore, there will be a higher GDP so China and other developing countries that perform these unsustainable practices ultimately become more influential because they have more money from their growing empire. However, this unsustainable use of fossil fuels, that many countries rely on, contaminate the seas with CO2 (reducing coral life), increase the Earth’s temperature, and pollute our atmosphere: the health of our world is not maintained. 

To help to solve this problem, developed countries, as they are most influential, should plan to imminently reject the use of fossil fuels and put more money in renewable energy. Then, in a few years, they should ban fossil fuel use entirely. Developing countries, such as China, should reduce their fossil fuel use but not entirely until they are considered a developed country. Capitalistic views should surrender against environmental issues.

In conclusion, desire for money is the driver for cheap business, which at present, includes the use of fossil fuels and unsustainable materials. This happens at a global scale but especially happens in the Amazon rainforest because there is 6.7 million km squared of space and has many exclusive natural resources. So economic development is vital for many individuals in order to gain a better quality of life or move up social/political status, but this comes at the expense of the environment. 

To conquer unsustainable development, my opinion is that developed governments have to lead the change because they have the greatest amount of money, and as I said before, money is the driver to the majority of decisions. They are able to give grants and produce more renewable energy methods. What is more is that they have the highest authority within a country so they are able to implement legislation for more environmentally-friendly farming methods and educate people’s views on money. Materialistic views should be abandoned by people and understanding the wider picture (how their actions could limit global warming) should be promoted.

Header image by Pixabay via Pexels

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