Fact sheet from "What Have We Done?,
The Foundation for Global Sustainability's State of the Bioregion Report for the Upper Tennessee Valley and Southern Appalachian Mountains."

Take heed, and beware of covetousness; for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.
Luke 12:15

Shop 'til You Drop

  • "Buy more stuff" is a theme that resounds across our bioregion from West Knoxville to the most remote rural mountains--and just about everywhere else. The view that ever-increasing consumption is essential to a sound economy is now a central dogma of industrialized and developing countries alike. Growth has become a new religion, and consumption has so pervaded our values that the term "consumer" is now synonymous with "person."

  • Consumption has come to represent much of how we gain respect, as we compete with the family down the street. Meanwhile, last year's luxury good purchase becomes a necessity, while we pursue new luxury goods. Our pursuit of consumption has replaced much of the function of neighborhoods, churches and family. We work longer hours in order to attain the income for our rising consumption, while we increasingly turn to convenience in our foods and home life.

  • Discount stores offer a bargain for the consumer, at least in terms of the immediate purchase cost, however, products all too often ends in rapid disrepair, thus contributing to waste and the inefficient use of resources. We turn toward consumer items to solve all our problems, while our children and our schools become billboards of corporate advertizing.

    Let It Grow, Let It Grow, Let It Grow...

  • Current tenets of business economics do not consider the necessity of biodiversity, the limits of the planet's carrying capacity, or ecosystem health. Our economy--regional, national, and international--operates blindly from the dogma that money and growth can overcome all ecological constraints--and social constraints as well.

    The Haves and Have Nots

  • The growth economy has produced a system of "haves and have nots." Growth and consumption is indicative of the disparity between the world's affluent consumer societies and those barely able to meet basic needs. Even in our prosperous nation, a dramatic and undeniable shift of wealth from the bottom to the top classes of the U.S. economy has occurred.

    Is There a Fast Food Job in Your Future?

  • Corporate downsizing, movement of manufacturing facilities overseas, and a general shift toward service-oriented work are the economic themes of the 1990s. Employment trends in our bioregion generally reflect what is happening in much of the industrialized world: we are moving from an industrial-based economy to a more service-oriented economy. Here, as well as around the nation, technology is replacing workers.

  • As with the rest of the nation, what is particularly noteworthy about the employment trends in the state is the rise in the service industry. The service sector currently includes nine of the top ten industries in employment in Tennessee. By the turn of the century, three of the state's ten largest industries will be those which traditionally include the lowest paid--from burger flippers to bag clerks.

  • One visible and highly publicized shift in employment for the region, is the loss of jobs through the downsizing of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Department of Energy. Overall, the loss of federal government jobs in Tennessee ranks at the top of the list for declining employment. The shear number of lost government jobs has had a dramatic on the region, forcing family wage earners to compete with a limited number of similar positions--particularly in high paying managerial and technical fields--or leave the area and find employment elsewhere. Moreover, because of the heavy concentration of government facilities throughout the region, the "spin-off" affects has also been tremendous, as government contractors and local businesses feel the loss in service needs and thus declining business.

    Sustainable Development

  • The current economy, while growing steadily, is also in rapid and disruptive flux. Farmers and factory workers have become accountants, clerks and waitresses, while TVA and DOE professionals compete for the rapidly declining jobs in their once healthy fields of employment. Many workers still make their living in industries that are among the worst polluting in the nation. All of this points to the need for new directions.

  • The goal of an economy that respects both ecological and social health is sustainable development. To "grow" means to increase in size, while to "develop" means to make fuller or more mature or organized. While both terms can be, and often are, used synonymously, distinguishing between them allows us to emphasize economic improvements that are primarily qualitative, not quantitative.

  • The damage our economy is now inflicting on the mountains, rivers, valleys, and people of this bioregion is a sign that further growth would not be healthy; it is high time for the economy to stop growing and mature.

  • In a mature, sustainable economy, systems of production, distribution, and reuse are, like the mature systems of nature, organized cyclically, rather than linearly. They do not simply draw energy and raw materials from the environment, process these, and deposit them as unusable wastes back into the environment. Rather, the energy comes from renewable sources, such as sun, wind, or energy crops; "wastes" generated by one operation become usable raw materials for others, circulating perpetually, like the biomass, water, and air of a mature forest. The aim of these cyclical processes is not ever-increasing wealth, but a special kind of dynamic equilibrium: health.

  • Plants and animals of natural ecosystems feed on each other and on each other's wastes, so that materials and energy circulate efficiently through the system, creating very little waste. The idea of an industrial system that operates on these same principles is termed "industrial ecology." Producers in an industrial ecology seek to use as input the by-products from other manufacturing processes, and correlatively, take the responsibility of ensuring that their products and byproducts are efficiently used and reused.

  • An example of industrial ecology is our region is EcoGenics Inc., in Sevierville, Tennessee. This micro-production facility makes ethanol, which can be used as a substitute for gasoline to power cars and trucks. The ethanol is created from organic "waste" materials by a nonpolluting closed-loop process. In the seaside Danish industrial town of Kalundborg, a complex industrial symbiosis has developed as businesses, including a power station, a plasterboard manufacturer, a pharmaceutical company, and an oil refinery, have found inventive ways to use byproducts to reduce costs and comply with environmental regulations. Chattanooga, Tennessee, while not sustainable, nonetheless stands out as a hopeful example of what can be done simultaneously to improve the economy and the environment.

    Obstacles to Sustainability

  • One of the main deterrents to a sustainable economy is our current pricing structure, which fails to fully account for the true cost of the products we consume. Energy loss, extraction wastes, pollution, species extinction, the loss of virgin resources for future or alternative uses, waste disposal costs of packaging and products, and other forms of environmental degradation are considered "external" to the costs of production.

    Public Remedies

  • Existing taxes, subsidies and standards that primarily favor the extraction, transportation and use of virgin materials must be modified. The single most effective way to reduce waste and increase the efficiency of materials use is to raise the cost of primary raw materials (most especially fossil fuels) to account for all costs associated with materials extraction, processing, manufacturing, and disposal.

  • Sustainability can be encouraged by reducing income and payroll taxes and placing "green" taxes on virgin resource use, environmental degradation and nonrenewable energy use. Thus, timber logged from a primary (virgin) forest would be taxed at a far greater rate than timber felled from secondary (previously cut) forests; timber cut using sustainable logging practices would be taxed still less. Real estate development, road building and other practices that lead to deforestation would also be taxed. In all areas of the economy, green taxes would serve to internalize the environmental costs of production, encourage efficient use of materials, and discourage waste.

  • Green taxes could help to reverse the current trend in business to reduce employee payroll in order to improve the profit margin, forcing them to create new jobs in research and development as they search for innovative ways to avoid the green taxes. Moreover, incentives to improve energy efficiency and lower resource use may in the long run save businesses money and increase profits.

    Small is beautiful

  • We all have come (some of us many generations ago) from rural roots. The traditional rural life of necessity a life of frugality and moderation. We also come from religious roots, and all the world's major religions--Christianity not least--condemn materialism. The current economic order is neither ancient nor permanent; only in this century have consumerism and materialism become central to our way of life. Thus, it is intriguing to consider that a return to family life, community, valued work, respect for skills, and enjoyment of nature--all of which many of us now miss--could result from greater economic self-sufficiency. Together, with local leadership and community action, we can begin to immediately create a sustainable economy.

  • The alternative we envision is a bioregional economy that draws upon the resourcefulness of its people and the land. The human wealth of scientists and engineers who live here could be tapped to launch innovative ventures in environmental technologies. A sustainable economy would offer new opportunities for many nontraditional entrepreneurial efforts: materials reuse, sustainable lumbering, renewable energy production, self-sustaining small-business networks, local organic agriculture, and cooperative marketing.