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Nalivka: American Sustainability

The views expressed in the following commentary are those of John Nalivka, president, Sterling Marketing, Inc., Vale, Oregon.

The concept of sustainability will be tested in more ways than we probably care to think about over the next few years.  While the term has become much-touted in reference to the environment, the larger issue and – one which I think is more important – concerns economic security.   That applies to individuals, businesses and the overall U.S. economy.  From the standpoint of business, and more specifically agriculture, I often say sustainability is profitability – period.

The last few weeks as the country has been in a lockdown strategy – which nearly shut the economy down – to address the coronavirus.  With businesses closed and nearly 40 million Americans out of work as a result, the real meaning of sustainability has become increasingly apparent.  Sustainability is economic security, food security and health care security.   All three within a two-week period came to the forefront which led to government intervention as the strategy to address the impact of the first strategy or business shutdowns.

My question: what will the third strategy be to address our U.S. public debt which has now become unserviceable – not unmanageable, but unserviceable?  The current U.S. public debt is $25 trillion dollars or the equivalent of nearly $77,000 per citizen, or $204,000 per taxpayer.  That is 119% of our gross domestic product or GDP, the value of all goods and services produced!    In 2000, that figure was 58% and in 1980, 35%.  Much like when businesses become too highly leveraged, that is not sustainable.

Over the past 6 weeks the conversation has centered around a new normal.  I am not sure if any of us know what that is or will be – if ever.  But I do know that we as individual Americans, businesses including farms and ranches, and as a country, we must reconsider the question – what is sustainable?  Coronavirus may or may not have changed the country.  Perhaps, the truer statement would point to the lockdown response to coronavirus as the challenge.  The end result is that every aspect of our way of life has been challenged and it is time to rethink that word – sustainability.

The opportunity for sustainability is created when decisions are made by individuals in a capitalistic society that lead to economic security, food security, and health security.   Obviously, this will include government but it must be limited and certainly not expanded to create the public debt that we now face.  And furthermore, it should include the environment, but the environment is not the driver of sustainability.

Yes, sustainability is about profitability and profitability is about sustainability.  The two go hand in hand.  Ask any rancher or farmer who built a successful business how that came about.  It probably involved solid economics learned the hard way.

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