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Sustainability requires conservation mindset


Sustainability is generally a good thing, whether in business or natural resources.

The idea of making something last indefinitely, or at least not consuming a resource faster than it can be replenished, is getting a lot of attention these days and is a big part of the "green" movement. The commercial insurance industry is acknowledging this with a variety of products offering favorable rates and terms for "green" buildings, for example.

Sustaining a business is no easy feat, and risks that can end that dream are everywhere. Catastrophes for which a business has no mitigation or recovery plan can darken even the brightest future. Planning for and nurturing continuity is critical. So are prudent use and disposal of resources needed to operate the business, from fuel to paper to computers.

People are beginning to understand that sustainability has a lot to do with our impact on the environment. In short, actions have consequences, sometimes irrevocable ones.

I recently read a fascinating nonfiction book by Mark Kurlansky, a New York-based writer who explores human history and its lessons for modern times. "The Last Fish Tale" paints a disturbing portrait of the effects of overfishing on the commerce and culture of fishing towns such as Gloucester, Mass. Until fairly late in the 20th century, he writes, it was believed that nature's resilience was supreme; humans could not exhaust the ocean's resources.

Sadly, we know today that was a fallacy. Shortsighted regulation, political expediency and improved technology that made commercial fishing highly efficient in the past 50 years have virtually depleted stocks of groundfish such as cod and haddock, once so numerous that they were a reason Europeans came to the New World and the Pilgrims settled here. Even past its mid-17th century heyday, Gloucester remains a major fishing port on the Atlantic. Similar ports in Europe died many years earlier, due to overfishing.

The lesson is that when a fish species becomes "commercially extinct," that is, the population dwindles to being too small to sustain a fishing industry, the ocean ecosystem changes - perhaps permanently. This happens to terrestrial life, too. Pollution and environmental damage don't help ocean life, though their effects are more apparent to those of us living on land.

Walt Disney Co.'s Pixar Animation Studios' "Wall-E" movie is a summer blockbuster that's enormously entertaining for children and adults, but it conveys a troubling message about humans' pollution of the planet. The story, set centuries in the future, is about a robot that has spent more than 700 years compacting trash into cubes and stacking them, so high they resemble skyscrapers. In the story, the pollution and garbage force humans to evacuate Earth in huge spaceships, with the idea that they'll return after robots such as Wall-E clean it up.

How can we avoid such a nightmare? For starters, we can recycle more and reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and elsewhere. I wonder why some places still don't bother to cull recyclable bottles, paper, etc. from ordinary trash. It's a heckuva lot easier if separate containers are available. My family lives in a community where most plastics and metals are collected and recycled and, as a result, our blue recycling bin is always brimming. It's a larger container than our trash cans, in fact. And I suspect we can still do more.

Humans are creatures of habit, so cultivating a habit of reducing, reusing and recycling materials is something that government and business should encourage, too. Mandates may get a recycling program started, but greater awareness of the positive effects of such efforts will keep it going. If we make it easier to separate recyclables at home, at work and on the street, more people will be likely to do so and keep doing so.

One needn't accept the argument that human activity is solely responsible for global warming - I don't - to realize that we should try to conserve and sustain the resources we have.