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Redefining the Relationship between the Environment, Society and the Economy

Read the first article in this two-part series here.

The concept of the “triple bottom line,” now widely referred to as the three pillars of sustainability – people, profits and planet – is hindering our ability to understand why the system is not working for so many people. In reality, the environment contains human society, which in turns contains the economy. A vibrant economy depends on the rule of law and depends on people earning enough money to create a robust market for goods and services. Society depends on having a stable climate that supports agriculture and that allows most (or all) people to support their families and communities through the fruits of their labor.

The model of three pillars of environment, economy and equity (or people, profit, planet), is misleading. The environment is the service provider that enables human society to exist. Human society creates the conditions, rules and relationships that support economic activity.




Here’s a look at how this change in thinking could alter our view of environmental challenges:

  • What if we had an economy based on “regenerative capitalism?” Like a healthy natural ecosystem, what if materials cycled through the economy to be used and reused over and over again?
  • What if we designed our water systems to capture, treat and reuse local sources of water, such as storm water, ground water and surface water, without needing to over-pump aquifers or transfer water long distances from one region to another? This could provide many opportunities for the application of smart technology (sensors, communications, information management technology, filtration, etc.) in a distributed network where water is processed close to where it is used, so it can be reused many times over.
  • What if we reduced the use of toxic materials so that we would not have to worry about removing them from the water supply, air or soil?
  • What if agricultural practices followed sustainable guidelines to ensure species diversity, soil health and integrated pest management?
  • What if companies formed industrial “neighborhoods” where natural resources (materials, water and energy) can be used and reused, creating markets for waste streams as well as for finished products? This could create local jobs and reduce the energy required to ship finished goods and waste products long distances.
  • What if healthcare systems were rewarded for preventing illness and promoting health, rather than being paid for tests and procedures?
  • What if energy was managed on a distributed basis, optimizing renewable resources, integrating electrical vehicles, energy efficiency and helping customers manage their energy demand and supply dynamically?
  • What if culture, ideas and communication were exchanged widely, but most manufacturing was done on a just-in-time basis, in a way that allows each region to meet their needs primarily from local resources (feedstocks, water, energy, labor, etc.)?

The good news is that many companies, communities and other institutions are researching, inventing and implementing solutions that will lead to a better future. Best efforts alone will not be enough; people and institutions will have to work together to create policies and practices that lead to a sustainable future.

For example, smart infrastructure for water, energy and transportation can provide markets for new technology, new jobs and better quality of life. It will take political will to change policies that inhibit cradle-to-cradle management of resources. Humanity has defeated slavery, fascism and second-hand smoke. We have championed democracy and the internet. Are we up to the task of inventing a future that works for everyone? The path forward begins with knowing what journey we are on, and preparing accordingly.

Marianna Grossman is executive director of Sustainable Silicon Valley. This is the second article in a two-part series. Read the first here.

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2 thoughts on “Redefining the Relationship between the Environment, Society and the Economy

  1. Marianna – a pleasure, as always, to read your articles. I will share your thoughts via my social media circles and with my Sustainability Planning students in the next class i teach at Cal State Fullerton. Thank you for your contributions to make the world a better place. ~Micheline Birkhead

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