Running in Circles
Sports metaphors are hard to avoid. We're forever racing to the finish or otherwise racing against the clock to some goal.
However, when considering sustainable businesses, racing to the finish may not be the best approach. Consider, for example, the logging industry in New England. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, timber from New England was world renown, and there was an insatiable demand from New England's ship building industry, from other American colonies, and from Europe. To meet that demand, the colonists installed the first water-powered sawmill in 1634, and the race was on!
Cutting trees as fast as possible, to meet as much demand as possible, and to make as much money as possible, was the order of the day! By 1750, the commercially viable pine stock of New England had been depleted. But the logging industry took this in stride and focused on cutting the spruce stock. By 1850 that stock had been depleted, too. And by the end of the 19th century, the entire logging industry had virtually collapsed. The race was over.
Fortunately, at the turn of the 19th century conservation visionaries like Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot saw our forests as an economic resource to be sustained rather than depleted. They developed the tenets of sustainable forestry that underpin the sustainable management of our world's forests today. Those tenets see forests as developing in cycles of growth, harvest, and regrowth. And within the trees' cycles of growth, harvest, and regrowth are cycles of life for underbrush, insects, birds, small animals, large animals, streams, rivers, and the bounty of life within them. And a viable economy.
As a society, we are learning to manage this one resource in cycles, rather than racing to finish each quarter as profitably as we can.
As we move deeper into the 21st century, we see other races to the finish taking place. Racing to mine our planet for fossil fuels such as natural gas, petroleum, and coal as fast as possible, to make as much money as possible, is again the order of the day. We see fossilized carbon as a cheap and available source of energy, and are in a race to drill and mine wherever we can, as fast as we can. We are in a race to finish this resource, regardless of the consequences for our drinking water, our mountain top communities, our air, or our climate.
We fail to see the cycles that nature created to sustain us, starting with energy from the sun that nurtures plants, that remove carbon dioxide from the air as they grow, that release oxygen to the air (so we can grow), and in the process store energy to meet our energy needs. This 'carbon cycle' and other cycles such as the 'nitrogen cycle' and the 'water cycle' are key to sustained life on earth.
Let's learn to run within these cycles, and not race to end them.