A Question of Value

In times of economic malaise and financial collapse, people – especially governments and businesses – tend to ask: ‘Can we afford to invest in sustainability?’

This question makes me laugh out loud and at the same time pull my hair in utter exasperation. What do you mean, ‘afford’? Afford in terms of what? In terms of quarterly growth figures? In terms of shareholder confidence? In terms of costs depicted in numbers that refer to monetary units that are actually not units but digits, whose perceived value depends on expectations of financial traders and analysts, and bears very little relationship with the daily bread we eat?

The simple question ‘Can we afford to invest in sustainability?’ lays bare one of the greatest economic misperceptions of capitalist societies; the belief that we are the creators of wealth. That our busy-ness, whether in extraction, processing, producing servicing, selling or renting, creates wealth. It doesn’t. We may support, alter, intensify or speed up certain processes, but the Origin of Wealth is still natural creation.

I argue after John Ruskin: ‘There is no Wealth but Life’. Plants and trees in ecosystems are great wealth creators. With the help of water and carbon-dioxide they transform the energy of the sun into matter. Into leaves that provide oxygen, roots that keep the soil together, fruits that we eat, wood that we burn, topsoil that nourishes other plants, and in tree-time, they even become a tiny part of the earth crust itself. And all of that while facilitating life for other species and without upsetting the greater natural balance.

I must say we humans are quite brilliant too. I really like us. We have beautifully evolved bodies, with bones and muscles, lungs and a heart, feet and fingers, and everything tends to work together smoothly. We have the capacities to sense, to feel, to think, to imagine, to create, to relate, to love, to care and to mess things up. Yes, I think we are quite brilliant. But we are NOT the origin of Wealth. Nor are our businesses, our governments, or our technologies. We are a part of, and dependent on the Wealth of Nature. And without it, we are gone in the blink of an eye.

So when we use the word ‘afford’, should we not refer to true wealth; the wealth that keeps Life alive? Should we not measure in terms of what the Earth can carry; whether we can ecologically afford to produce a product? Whether the ecosystem looses health through the process and scale at which we make stuff and dispose of it?

Many so-called bright green people talk about the ‘business case for sustainability.’ They feel that sustainability is important (either for social or ecological reasons, or because the consumer demands it), and wish to approach it as a business opportunity. Even though I can only respect their efforts to create change, the term ‘business case for sustainability’ sounds just as upside-down to me as the question above. Would it not make more sense to turn the issue back on its feet and ask: Do these activities serve Life? Do we have a Sustainability case for business?

Capitalist societies seem to suffer from a serious confusion of value. We invest billions and trillions to keep the current economy afloat, without asking whether we can ecologically afford this system in the first place! We suffer from a fatal misjudgement of what Life is Worth, leading to serious miss-prioritisation. We put more importance on a derived product of wealth (our man-made concept of economy) than the source of all wealth (a healthy, diversely creative, self-balancing ecosystem).

So next time you find yourself bemoaning the price of organic, hear your colleagues arguing about the costs of going green, or politicians waiting for the economy to get ‘back on track’ before they invest in renewables, remember the question: ‘Can we afford to invest in sustainability?’

Then laugh out loud, pull your hair with a mix of insight and exasperation, and realise that you have questioned the value of True Value!

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4 thoughts on “A Question of Value

  1. Great blog!
    It would enrich our debate very much if we would indeed concentrate on the sustainability case for business – and governments – instead of the business case for sustainability. I will use this blog in some of my programs at Nyenrode. Thanks.
    Andre Nijhof

  2. Great article. Wise, sensible and very well written. And I couldn’t agree more with you, Sarah!

    Just a couple of days ago I was discussing the more or less the same issue with some friends, although not so much on an economic perspective as you so very well have approached it. Like you I do like us as a species. Unfortunately, I do not believe we are a sustainable species on top of this planet. So, what I believe is that the Earth will re-find her balance by getting rid of us “in the blink of a eye” (in earth time), as you said. Then – also in Earth time – maybe another species, much wiser than us, will evolve. This time, in a sustainable way!

  3. We would be much better off if we understood our existence as a part of a system, that if we consume, we must replace. It is not, cannot be, a linear flow. The term “ecosystem” is often used in environmental and sustainability issues. We need to start using it in economic issues as well, and there’s no mere coincidence that both share the same Greek root prefix.

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