Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sustainable Fit for Business, Society, and the Environment

     Regardless of whether you consider yourself an environmentalist, almost every person has certain things in common with environmentalists.
We want our food, water, and air to be free of things that are likely to make us sick or kill us. However we understand the word likely, we agree that we want to be healthy. Many of us would like to enjoy optimum health.
     We also appreciate beauty, especially natural beauty. You don’t have to be an environmentalist to appreciate beautiful scenery, especially if it’s a vacation destination. No brochure for a travel agency or tourism bureau ever displayed a polluted pond full of dead fish.
     Environmentalists and other people are not divided by their differences in values or necessarily by matters of fact. They are divided by perceptions that are often mistaken by both sides of the debate.
     Many of the perceptions that divide us are mere shibboleths. A belief or disbelief in global warming has nothing to do with whether you want a clean environment. People on both sides of the debate want to be healthy, they appreciate natural beauty, and they want goods and services of reasonable price and quality.
     The latter point brings us to another thing that environmentalists have in common with almost everyone else. We’re often divided by the mistaken belief that there’s a conflict between corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate profit. There isn’t. No matter how much people hate business, they still want jobs.
     Businesses, societies, and the environment have mutual needs. To whatever extent the needs and values of all three areas dovetail, the interests of all three are advanced.
     Thus, it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game in which each side benefits only to the degree that the others lose.
     That’s not to say that any business can locate wherever its managers please, then magically come up with a sustainable strategy. Sometimes the fit just isn’t there, and the business is not suitable for that particular society or environment. Australians, for example, would probably never consider starting a dingo farm next door to an infant daycare center.
     This farm (above) is located only a few meters from the wetlands outside the city of Taipei, Taiwan.  Clean water, of course, is vital for raising food crops.  A gray heron, one of many wetland birds, (at right) co-exists with human activities on this farm.
     The stream you see at left is waste water .  The  protected wetland helps to purify the water.  Because of the cleaner water, fishermen are able to make a living by catching fish that are safe to eat. (See below)

     A clear example of a win-win situation is the Golden Riverside Park in New Taipei City (formerly Taipei County), Taiwan.
     More than ten years ago, the Danshui River was horribly polluted, the ferry had been defunct since the Guandu Bridge was built, the fishing industry was ailing, and Danshui itself was a sleepy college town. It was such a sleepy town that, at night, motorcyclists could race along its major streets with little fear of hitting someone.
     Wetlands—the lungs and kidneys of Taiwan’s environment—were freely used as trash dumps by businesses and individuals. This was especially tragic, since only 20% of Taiwan’s wastewater is treated at waste treatment plants. Wetlands shoulder the burden of cleaning up the rest.
     Since the Guandu River Bridge was built during the 1980's people no longer need a ferry to cross the Danshui River.  Since the wetlands have been restored, and the water is much less polluted, the Guandu River Ferry has enjoyed a new career as a picturesque form of tourism.
     The lamentable economic and environmental situation changed when the Taipei County government laid plans to restore the wetlands. Restoration of the natural wetlands and the construction of other wetlands has improved water quality, attracted wildlife, attracted tourists, created businesses that rely on tourism, and improved the social and economic well being of the entire area. 

     The photos above and at left were taken at one of Danshui's tourist areas on a slow weekday.  On weekends, it's far too crowded for bicycling. 

      Just think of how many jobs are saved or created, and how many other human needs in the area are met by fully functioning wetlands.

     The video below shows a panoramic view of tourist-related businesses along the riverbank, bicyclists, the Guandu Ferry, the mountains, the wetlands, and the Guandu Bridge.

(For more information on the importance of wetlands, click the following URL:)

     On the other hand, let’s suppose someone were irresponsible enough to allow the construction of a chemical plant along the wetlands. Let’s further suppose he were reckless enough to permit the dumping of toxins into the air and into the wetland’s water table, on the grounds that this measure would create jobs.
     It’s true that expanding a petrochemical plant into an ecosystem's lungs and kidneys could create some jobs. We can be sure that  jobs would be created for medical personnel specializing in the treatment of various cancers and respiratory ailments.  Furthermore, undertakers (illustrated above center) wouldn't have to wait as long for customers, nor would hospitals or medical schools have to wait as long to make claims on your organ donor card (illustrated above right). 
     Can we say, though, that the only jobs that matter are the ones created by businesses with pockets deep enough to contribute oceans of money to political campaigns?
     How many jobs would be lost? How many lives would be shortened due to cancer and respiratory illnesses? How much natural beauty would be destroyed? No, each person is valuable, as are each person’s health and general well being. Any business that is given privileges at the expense of society and the environment becomes a menace to society, the environment, and most other businesses.
     The value of a person’s job can’t be measured by how much it contributes to the GDP. GDP measures money spent, but it doesn’t measure value received.
     Look at a loaf of bread. The manufacture of a plastic bread wrapper contributes more to the GDP than the production of the wheat that goes into the bread. The wheat, on the other hand, contributes more value to the finished product. It’s the fit among all factors—the ingredients of the bread, the quality of the water used in growing the wheat, and social needs—that give bread its overall value.
     In the video below, you can see what happens at the end of the river.  At low tide, people forage for crabs and various other foods from the sea.  They, too, depend on relatively clean water for food safety, and GDP has nothing to do with it.  Each person has value that can't be measured in dollars and cents.

     Just as “jobs” is used as a rationale for corporate greed and depredation, certain giant corporations sometimes use “environmental protection” as a rationale for destroying their competitors. In such cases, environmental legislation is written to give favored businesses virtual monopolies.
     But that’s the subject of another article.


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