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Sustainability: more than one kind of green

April 5, 2012

One of the many interesting things that struck us in Chris Fowler’s keynote speech for the Pure Catskills-sponsored Farm to Market Conference in Liberty on March 25 was the phrase “sustainable economy.” Fowler is founder and executive director of Syracuse First, an organization dedicated to the promotion of local businesses and products. The idea of localization vs. globalization is not new to us; indeed, we have argued for it on this page. But somehow “sustainable” is a concept we had always thought about mostly with regard to the environment. How does it relate to an economy?

Sustainable practices are ways of manufacturing, building or doing things that put back into the earth and biosphere whatever materials and energy are used, without (ideally) any of it being wasted or destroyed. But with the idea of a sustainable economy, we are talking not only about physical materials, but about human beings, financial systems and community. How does one structure an economy so that it puts back into the human community and its coffers what is needed to go on generating economic activity—and community—perpetually?

One way to approach this question is to look at the opposite of economic sustainability: the boom and bust cycle. Boom and bust happens when one big industry moves into an area, pumps up the economy for a short period of time—and then dies, taking the community, which has become uniquely dependent upon it, down with it. Extraction industries like mining are notorious for creating this pattern.

So one factor to include in a sustainable economy is diversification. But diversification doesn’t just apply to the goods and services produced; it also means maintaining an adaptable workforce. A quality workforce, after all, is one of the chief things businesses pay attention to when they choose locations. A workforce with diverse, general skills will bring in new employers even if an old industry fails. But if the dominance of a single industry has over-specialized the workforce, it will be difficult either to attract or start new businesses.