Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Short term vs. long term, and "economic" sustainability

If you heard President Obama's State of the Union address last week, you probably heard him talk about "winning the future." His talk was primarily focused around jobs, unemployment, and American "competitiveness." Apart from his mention of jobs needed in the "clean energy" sector, you would have not been able to conclude, however, that there are issues of much greater import that will throw major hurdles in the way of American "competitiveness," notwithstanding water and soil and rare earth metal issues. Obama centered his discussion about the need to get people back to work, and back to producing things and consuming those things, clearly a short term approach to addressing larger scale issues.

If you heard Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's State of the State address the week before that, you would have heard a similar message - a message of jobs and turning Michigan into a "global commerce hub." He also announced that the State would be fully being the Detroit River International Crossing, the second, but publicly-owned bridge to Canada, that will serve to compete with Matty Maroun and his goons at the Detroit International Bridge Company.What this bridge is likely going to do is provide construction jobs in the short term to the State.

Both of these speeches assume that short term jobs are more important than long term vision. What Obama's speech assumes is that we will be able to continually produce and consume, and what Snyder's speech assumes is that making a long term investment, such as a bridge, will make the State of Michigan economically viable, and will hopefully allow the trickling down of money to the poorest of the poor in Southwest Detroit.

One, masterfully trained in capitalism or what have you, might say, that well of course such competitiveness and projects are needed - they provide people with employment, and people employed serve to grow the economy. Such a state is "economically" sustainable under these conditions. But how much longer can we use short term thinking to tackle long term problems such as poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation? These short term approaches, while putting money in the pockets of people today, necessarily puts in peril the ability of future generations of people and animals and plants (and non-living things) to fulfill their needs, or at least puts more pressure on them for them to survive. So in fact, what Obama and Snyder have done here have defined the constraints and bounds within which environmental and social sustainability can be addressed, by constraining the economic aspect of sustainability. As I tried to elaborate yesterday, this is rather the opposite approach that needs to be taken to ensure the long-term viability and resilience of communities, as well as the governments who collect taxes from these communities. How do you transition and balance between short term thinking and long term thinking? Any thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. One main problem is the contradicting definitions of "sustainability."

    The first questions to ask (which most people don't do) are:
    1. What are we sustaining?
    2. For whom?
    3. For how long?