Natural Capital Key to Economic Sustainability

By: Pamela A. Neronha, MPA

One of my dreams is to see “big” business become more of a force for good in the world, not just for shareholders’ profit. I would like to see “small” businesses become so much more by lifting the burden off struggling non-profits and government agencies and becoming big triple bottom line businesses themselves. We are so fortunate to live in Siskiyou County and at the base of beautiful Mount Shasta. However, we join small rural communities everywhere when we acknowledge our struggle to achieve sustainable economic development. The ability for businesses to thrive in our community is intimately connected to the sustainability of our citizens. Given today’s global situation of political unrest, resource exploitation, and climate change impacts, increasing numbers of people throughout the world cannot meet their basic needs for survival. Without clean air and water, adequate food and shelter, people’s lives become unsustainable. This is not just about business, it is about the sustainability of human life.

According to the U.S. Sustainability Primer – Step by Natural Step, there are four root causes of earth’s unsustainability: increasing natural resource extraction, an increase in the items produced from these extractions, overall physical degradation of the earth’s natural resources, and the societal impact on millions of people who are constantly faced with barriers that prevent them from meeting the basic needs for life. It also views sustainability as encompassing three areas of focus: the economy imbedded within society, where both are imbedded within the environment. Using a systems perspective, people and the planet and maximum profit are not seen as separate but integral to each other. Triple Bottom Line companies relate corporate endeavors to sustainability from the standpoint of environmental, societal, and economic abundance and profitability.

Natural Capitalism champions the idea that businesses could make exponential profits if they only made more productive use of natural resources. If designers used nature’s inherent intelligence for human-made objects, not only would many of our sustainability challenges be met, but profits and increased competition in the business world would yield greater measurable gains in performance and aesthetics while lowering costs. Big business and capitalism are not the enemies of citizens in a free democracy. The new way of doing business is a “win-win-win” for the environment, society, and our global economy.

Seeing societal struggles as part of the sustainability equation helps us focus more intentionally on the human plight of natural resource extraction and depletion. When we look at traditional food webs, we can view them instead as “value webs.” Looking to biology, the “Chrysalis Economy” is a metaphor for emerging technologies and their associate business “models,” not business “plans.” Yet financial institutions still insist entrepreneurs produce business plans which are logical, methodical assumptions that rarely perform according to our expectations. Hence the predictable failure of many small businesses and the demise of economic development. Instead we should recognize that it is nature that is scarce today, not people. People need jobs and opportunities that are intentional, self-fulfilling, and evolutionary. Growth is good if it is compatible with natural capital, and indeed necessary for community sustainability.