In the United States, at least, the bottom line has replaced the number nine as the mystical number. Every action is expected to have a payoff that is measurable and, preferably, profitable. This attitude is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it inspires businesses, governments, and individuals to strive for efficiency. On the other hand, it encourages lowest-cost solutions and immediate return on investment. The higher initial costs to build a "green" building, for example, are weighed against the long-term savings to operate the facility, but rarely against the long-term benefits to the natural environment. And sometimes it's difficult to prove that any additional costs lead to savings over time: thicker building insulation is a net cost benefit only if the thermostat is set properly; permeable pavement prevents polluted storm water from running into streams only if it stays unclogged. In virtually all human endeavors, there is now a tension between the short-term and the long-term, and people spend a great Commercial gas engineer deal of time trying to reconcile these considerations. Indeed, an industry has developed of professionals dedicated to the built environment who do little else - urban planners, real estate market analysts, transportation consultants, and environmental engineers, to name a few.
The tension between the present and the future is at the core of sustainability, which asks us to re-think how our economy expands. But sustainability remains a small voice trying to be heard over the great growth-rumble of capitalism.
The history of capitalism is the story of relentless growth - growth of production, growth of worker productivity, growth of consumption, and growth in the demands placed on nature. In a capitalist economy, producers of goods and services are forced to compete with one another, and the pressure to survive results in a self-reinforcing cycle of technological innovation, productivity increases, new products, and the marketing of these products to ensure their sale: new technologies reduce labor costs by increasing worker productivity; production costs are thereby lowered, which means prices for consumers can also be lowered; people therefore have more disposable income to purchase new products; and, eventually, the labor forced out of old lines of production can be re-employed in the production of new products. Thus economic growth generates more growth.
The reproductive cycle of capitalism is not always smooth or steady, but it has churned without cessation for the past four centuries and shows no sign of stopping. Capitalism is the universe, the cosmos of modern human economic existence. We long ago passed the point where we could parse the world around us in noncapitalist terms, where we could justify our endeavors as other than good business. Today, we process actions, events, objects, and what happens in our lives according to the norms of capitalism: natural resources, community assets, human capital, private life, winning advice, educational standards, marketplace of ideas. A child who performs well is complemented for doing a good job. An authoritarian person is bossy. And on and on.
The bedrock need for capitalists to produce more and more at minimum cost in order to remain competitive and stay in business has profound and not always benevolent impacts on the fundamental ecological cycles - water, nitrogen, carbon - upon which life on earth depends. Briefly considering how these ecological cycles are affected by the reproductive cycle of capitalism permits us to see sustainable development in its full economic context.
Basically, water, nitrogen, and carbon are constantly recycled from one form to another, from one storage area to another. Water is stored in ice sheets, oceans, lakes, rivers, subterranean aquifers, and the atmosphere. Nitrogen is a major constituent of the atmosphere and is converted to nitrates through processes in the soil, which are then absorbed by plants. Carbon is stored primarily as coal, oil, natural gas, dead organic matter such as humus in the soil, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and as living organisms themselves.
There has always been, and always will be, the same amount of water, nitrogen, and carbon on earth. Nature, in its wisdom, maintains the proper balance between storage areas to sustain terrestrial life for the long-term.
Water is transferred from one state to another through evaporation and condensation: ice melts and water freezes or boils. Human beings ingest nitrogen, essential for the production of proteins, directly by eating plants or indirectly through the consumption of animals which feed on plants. Photosynthesis utilizes the energy of sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into the organic matter of plants, algae, and plankton, whereby carbon enters the human food chain, since animals cannot photosynthesize carbon directly. The burning of fossil fuels returns carbon directly to the atmosphere, where it regulates earth's temperature.
This, in a nutshell, describes the fundamental natural cycles that have sustained life since the Big Bang, or shortly thereafter. As capitalism evolved, however, human intervention in the ecological cycles has become more pronounced. People permanently settled in large numbers where there was too much water or not enough water, for example, and crops were planted which depleted the soil of nutrients faster than nature could replenish them. Advances in engineering, chemistry, and technology empowered us to overcome such obstacles by shifting the balance between storage areas from what nature seemingly intended to what is most expedient and profitable for humans.
For example, the depletion of aquifer, the drawing and damming of rivers, and the pollution of waterways to accommodate the growth of large cities and the agricultural lands which feed them, has dramatic repercussions. Water pumps now run dry in some places in the Great Plains, threatening the agricultural future of America's bread basket. The amount of fresh water flowing into San Francisco Bay has been reduced by nearly half because of diversions of the Sacramento River, allowing salt water intrusions from the Pacific Ocean and pressuring fisheries, crop lands, and the drinking water supply of San Francisco and Oakland. The Ganges, Yangtze, and Nile Rivers are thoroughly fouled for much of their courses by human, commercial, and agricultural waste, yet serve as mostly Commercial gas engineer untreated water sources for hundreds of millions of people, including those in the cities of Calcutta, Shanghai, and Cairo.
For almost three hundred years, nitrogen, in the form of grain stubble, pea vines, bean plants, leaf litter, clover, and animal waste, was plowed under by farmers to replenish soils. Replenishing the nitrate reservoir in the soil with vegetable matter and animal excreta, together with crop rotation, formed the backbone of the agrarian revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, without which the industrial revolution could not have occurred.