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Editorial Comment: In this article, Mike Nickerson makes the point that of the three Rs,  Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, only the recycling has really been successful.  Reduce and Reuse run against the economic expansion template adopted by Western civilization and have thus far had only very limited success.

Mike Nickerson on Shifting Society's Goals toward Sustainability
Mike Nickerson

When the economy is growing, we are told that all is well. But is it?

We are so immersed in the values, procedures and promotion of growth economics that it is hard to look at society’s well-being in any other way.  Events from the past, however, reveal serious omissions in that economic world view.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle were well known as solutions to natural resource and waste problems in 1987 when the World Commission on Environment and Development issued its ‘urgent notice’ that human activity was heading toward confrontation with planetary limits.

The response was tremendous. Recycling, the only ‘R’ that can be measured, showed a rapid and massive acceptance. Participation rates of 80% and 90% were realized within months of program start-ups. Reduction and Reuse, which are even more effective solutions to the limitations in question received similar attention.

Whether or not the recession that followed was directly related to reduction and reuse efforts would be an interesting topic of research. Another connection to explore would be the simultaneous occurrence of the ‘Black Monday’ stock market crash and the tabling of the United Nations report that issued the ‘urgent notice’ mentioned above. Both occurred October 19, 1987. The UN date had been known since April when the report was released. Could sales of shares in offending industries have triggered the computer-enhanced crash that shook the financial world?

Whatever the causes, the events that followed illustrate a point of critical importance.

Popular concern for environmental adaptation could have transformed civilization. Momentum grew rapidly as soon as the cause gained legitimacy. People were ready and it is well within our knowledge and ability to develop satisfying ways of living that fit within ecological bounds.

Why did we stop?

Legitimacy was withdrawn from Reduce and Reuse when our ‘leaders’ realized they are in direct conflict with the goal of economic expansion. How can a population reduce and reuse in good conscience when the primary value of society is to expand production and consumption? There is a fundamental moral conflict here.

Recycling is OK because it expands commerce and provides resources for ever hungry production machinery. Reduction and reuse clearly inhibit growth. It is time for a public review of the value systems that are at odds here! It becomes a question of direction.

In what direction do we move to achieve the sort of world we want?

Editor’s Comment: Mike Nickerson will explore two distinct directions facing humankind: perpetual economic growth versus sustainability in a future article.


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