Op-Ed

Instead of just talking about it, what if Kentucky actually pursued sustainability?

Have you noticed how the word “sustainable” is tossed around these days?

Often, it’s used when people are talking about economic growth and profits. People get this unctuous look, as if by simply saying “sustainable,” they add value. Thoughts about impacts on the environment, good or bad, or possible job implications never seem to follow.

As fast as we have been to adopt the word “sustainable,” with its free PR value, akin to “going green,” Kentucky has yet to recognize the full value of implementing sustainable goals.

What is sustainability? Long-term efforts to jointly meet economic, environmental and social needs, none at the cost of the other — a way to secure a growing economy and make sure that our communities and environment will prosper the next 50 years.

In September 2015, the United Nations’ 193 member countries unanimously adopted 17 sustainable development goals, to end poverty, fight inequality, tackle climate change and balance human prosperity while protecting the environment. The U.S. is one of the signing member countries.

The first goal: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

In Kentucky 17.2 percent of our people are living below poverty with an income less than $24,339 (for a family of two adults and two children). We see a huge swing from Owsley and Clay counties with more than 40 percent living in poverty to Boone, Oldham and Spencer with below 10 percent. In the United States, 12.3 percent overall live in poverty.

Although the majority of poor people work, they struggle with transportation to get to work, paying utilities, rent and childcare. Health issues often force them to give up their job. I see no lack of desire to work. Rather their wages are too low to maintain a decent living with reasonable choices. That’s poverty, a struggle to make ends meet.

Over the past 20 years, I saw this struggle on the farm when I employed part-time help. Often there were minor health issues, like poor teeth or physical impairments from earlier accidents. Also, lack of ability to make better choices. After a bad start they could never recover.

Earlier when I worked for the United Nations conducting training courses in Pakistan, people in the villages were very poor indeed. They lived isolated but had a way of making ends meet. They were surprisingly organized, had food, shelter and individual responsibilities. In a way their farming routines and life cycles were close to sustainable. Yet, equality and economic growth were lacking.

Here all focus is on stock value and dividends, but we have forgotten to look at the employee as an asset. Even when stock values are artificially inflated thanks to unproductive stock buybacks, it’s called economic growth. The company’s earnings are boosted by buying back stock, not by selling anything.

When nothing is re-invested in the company to make it more competitive, or in its workers and jobs, that’s unsustainable. Employees also need to invest and pay for education, health care and living. Inequality, measured on the basis of disposable income, is high and increasing in the U.S. and Kentucky.

Last year’s tax cuts made huge sums of money available to corporations. How did they spend it? By some estimates, 57 percent of the windfall has gone into stock buybacks, 18 percent to jobs and only 7 percent to better wages.

It has become habit for larger corporations to look out for stockholders before their employees, which is unfortunate for the half of the population who don’t own stock. Not so strange that job growth in Kentucky has slowed down the last couple of years.

Wage distribution is much more unequal in Kentucky and the U.S. than in other large economic democracies such as in Europe and the Nordic capitalistic democracies where poverty rates are much lower. These countries work consciously towards balancing human and environmental needs while boosting economic growth, not at anyone’s cost, sustainably.

Kris O’Daniel of Springfield is a scientist and native of Denmark who raises beef cattle and trains horses. Reach her at krisodaniel@ncsmail.net.

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