Rethink the Economy

On Boxing Day, a Canadian phenomenon where shoppers go wild at the malls, it seemed appropriate to excerpt this excellent article on sustainability.

Boxing Day is a public holiday in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Hong Kong and countries in the Commonwealth of Nations with a mainly Christian population. In South Africa, this public holiday is now known as the Day of Goodwill. It is based on the tradition of giving gifts to the less fortunate members of society. Contemporary Boxing Day in many countries is now a “shopping holiday” associated with after-Christmas sales.

Earth

Amid the discordant clash of solutions being served up to address the global financial crisis, a common refrain can be heard: Most global leaders and their economic advisers key their policy prescriptions to “sustained economic growth.” The prevailing debate is how to get there most quickly. In Canada, how this debate plays out could bring down the government in a matter of weeks.

Unfortunately, it is the wrong debate. Neither the Conservative minority nor the opposition has proposed anything that will set Canada on a long-term path toward the kind of economy that will both provide for the well-being of Canadians and enhance and preserve the ecological community of which people are but one dependent part.

All eyes may now be on the kind of fiscal budget the Conservatives might produce next year, but a more essential budget also demands urgent attention: the global ecological budget. The financial crisis has brought into sharp focus the need to fundamentally change, not merely repair or rebuild, our economy. Because, quite simply, sticking with an economic model that is driving toward ecological catastrophe will kill us. So, it is essential to address the financial and ecological crises together.

The ecological budget, on which all life and, consequently, the human economy depends, is already in dramatic deficit.

Here are six steps we can take toward a truly balanced budget that will allow Canadians, and all people on Earth, to live fulfilling, healthy, yet more ecologically compatible, lives.

  • Recognize that the economy is part of the biosphere. A comprehensive economic plan must be based on the scientific fact that the global economy is a subsidiary of the natural order. Economic policies should be attuned to the limited capacity of Earth’s biosphere to provide for humans and other life and to assimilate their waste.
  • Acknowledge that we need new institutions. An economic renewal tailored to the 21st century would establish institutions committed to fitting the human economy to Earth’s limited life-support capacity. Canada, with its token efforts to address climate change, is far off the track.
  • Acknowledge that unlimited growth on a finite planet makes no sense. Growth in consumption is a nonsensical response to the sharp decline in Earth’s biophysical systems that is caused by overconsumption. Our new ecological and climate reality demands new ways to live within the means of the Earth.
  • Fairness matters. A “right” human-Earth relationship would recognize humans as part of an interdependent web of life on a finite planet. The economy must recognize the rights of the human poor and of millions of other species to their place in the sun.
  • Expand the discussion. The new knowledge that will forever mark this period in human history is the overwhelming scientific evidence that we are overconsuming the planet and accelerating toward ecological catastrophe.
  • Look beyond technological fixes. Bold new leadership is needed that will focus on all four policy “theatres” relevant to human ecological impact and provide the moral footing that will lead people, individually and collectively, to choose lifestyles with radically lower impact. Pushing technological solutions like hydrogen cars and genetically modified agriculture is much easier politically than asking people to consume less or have fewer children. Unfortunately, technology alone cannot solve the ecological crisis.

Economic policy must promote not more affluence as currently defined, but more sufficiency for all Canadians – so that all may live with self-respect, without overconsumption.

Lastly, we must greatly increase investment in educational and civic institutions that teach that we are not “consumers,” but citizens of the Earth, and guardians of life’s prospect on a small, beautiful and finite planet.

Full article at the Toronto Star.

Peter G. Brown is a professor at McGill University. Geoffrey Garver is an environmental consultant and lectures in law at Université de Montréal and Université Laval. They are co-authors of Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy.

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