Less is not more: managing scarcity more sustainably
We have come to the closure of 2019 and await 2020 very hopeful. 2019 certainly will be one year that we in The Bahamas will not forget. The Atlantic hurricane season this year will forever remain in our memories, as hurricane Dorian, the most intense hurricane observed, devastated Abaco and Grand Bahama, and after four months the country is still reeling in trying to get to normalcy. Hence, the question of being sustainable will continue to be the main agenda for discussions in many forums across the globe as we try to slowdown the manmade impact that is resulting in climate change, especially in small island tourism destinations like The Bahamas.
The concept of “overtourism” and “undertourism” has been discussed at length in many international forums. In The Bahamas, there is always an issue in finding the correct balance between economic viability, environmental protection and social equity, in addition to political stability. Hence, “less is not more”, contrary to the concept of sustainability.
In an interesting article by Naveen Jain on 23rd October 2018, Quartz Online Publication, he mentioned that, “We have to create more of what we need rather than consume less of what we have”. Thus, is being sustainable the answer to our dwindling resources? Academics and researchers (including myself) working on this issue of sustainability over many decades are convinced that sustainability is the answer. In this concluding opinion piece for 2019, I am not advocating Jain’s view point but would like you to ponder his contradictory standpoint.
Indeed, our understanding of sustainability may just be our greatest peril. The key to this debate about sustainability is “managing scarcity”. The fierce competition in the region and the ever-growing demand for ever-shrinking resources in The Bahamas, certainly needs to be discussed in 2020. It is worrying that we, as a nation are not doing enough, in finding the right equilibrium between tourism development and our fragile environmental resources that are supporting the social needs of the people. Scarcity certainly is an extraordinarily double-edged economic force as discussed by Jain. For centuries, scarcity not only has resulted in world wars but also a source of tremendous profits. Tourism economists have perpetuated scarcity as a big business. The archipelago of The Bahamas with its picturesque sun, sea and sand, may not appear to be a scarce business opportunity as far as developers are concerned, but the fragility of some of these islands for overdevelopment is a concern that we as a nation need to ponder. I have no doubt in my 25 years’ experience working on sustainability projects on the well-meaning programmes of conservation and preservation of resources for generations to experience the wonders of the world. Nonetheless, is the current conservation and sustainability programmes ensuring scarcity’s continued dominance in the world especially in small island destinations? Thus, Jain’s intriguing viewpoint, “sustainability reinforces the value of scarce commodities”, is a valid one. Interestingly, we can see why many international based companies are interested to reap from this scarce commodity in the form of our pristine islands and cays in The Bahamas. Hence, less is not more, and the very contradiction raised by Jain that, “sustainability is actually not sustainable”.
Research has shown that within the next two decades, we need more to manage the scarcity that will impact the world. What we consume today may be insufficient to support half the global population in the future. All the conservation or sustainability design that we have today may still not be sufficient to meet the overwhelming demands that continue to pressure our fragile destinations. Are we reaching the tipping point of sustainability? Are we at a point where the demand for resources has reached a point that plots the slowing growth rate of available resources?
The demand for these scarce resources in small island destinations is real. The exponential rate of tourism demand in the Caribbean against limited or scarce linear supply, will without doubt result in sustainability collapsing. This obvious outcome can create a global crisis. Hence, Jain’s critical viewpoint, “A sustained mindset of sustainability will only hasten the crisis”, is something to really ponder. This is an interesting perspective, as Jain advocated that, “we have to create more of what we need rather than consume less of what we have, and to do that, we are going to have to adopt a fundamentally and radically different way of thinking and operating”.
Thus, the big question – how can we manage this scarcity? The expected scarcity is not just in the future. As we are a decade from fulfilling (or not fulfilling) the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is evident that scarcity is already seen now – not just in the coming future. We are undoubtedly living in that condition now. All across the globe including in the Caribbean, billions of people are already struggling to get access to basic education, healthcare, safe and adequate drinking water and nutrition, and also acceptable safety and sanitation. These fundamental access are further impacted in countries with famine, war, natural disasters, epidemics and political uprising. Jain is further of the view that only through a historic convergence of three powerful forces that we can change this status quo. They include: “The impending bankruptcy of an unsustainable scarcity-driven economy; technology that is advancing on an exponential scale; and the rise of an entirely new class of entrepreneurs who will be the principal drivers of the coming disruptions”.
Jain’s thought provoking viewpoint is certainly not baseless. The concept of sustainability seemed to have failed after decades of being advocated in the premise of managing scarcity for future generations. As an “expert” in sustainable tourism, do I have the answer? No, I don’t. The civilization of the future has to evolve on how they live, where they live, how they work, how they get around, how they interact, and even what they are. We may need a “Greta Thunberg” in the Caribbean or The Bahamas to rally the younger generations to demand their older generation leaders to react to the negative changes that is happening environmentally, economically and socially.
In conclusion, we may need to evolve from the economics of scarcity to the economics of abundance. As highlighted by Jain, “the greatest challenges facing humanity are also the biggest untapped opportunities for entrepreneurs”. As John W. Gardner, the American educator put it, “We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities disguised as insoluble problems”. We certainly have our work cut out for us in 2020 and beyond.
Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings Bahamas!
• Dr. Vikneswaran Nair is the dean of graduate studies and research and a professor of sustainable tourism at the University of The Bahamas.