Commentary

Eric Zencey: A new economy for today’s planet

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Eric Zencey, a fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, where he is coordinator of the Vermont GPI project. His most recent books are “The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy,” and (with Elizabeth Courtney) “Greening Vermont: Toward a Sustainable State.” This piece was first published in The Daly News

[O]nly madmen and economists, Kenneth Boulding once said, believe exponential growth can go on forever.

Beyond all reason and evidence, standard economics remains dedicated to the idea of perpetual increase in our species’ stock of wealth, income and material well-being. Their infinite planet thinking has a long pedigree: from John Locke toward the end of the 17th century to Adam Smith in the middle of the 18th, the planet was obviously capable of supporting expansion of the human estate for untold generations to come. In their world, vast reaches of the globe had yet to be mapped by Europeans. Humans everywhere were relatively scarce, their powers not yet global in scale, not yet amplified by the extraordinary energies of coal and oil.

But the 7 billion of us who are alive today live on a substantially different planet. It doesn’t have supposedly infinite tracts of supposedly virgin land, ripe for being ravished by swaggering, overconfident exploiters. We need a new, steady-state economy suited to the planet we have, not the one that economists thought we had 200 years ago. We need a post-infinite-growth economy (and a new breed of economist) respectful of the notion that there are ecological limits to economic activity. Absent that, our civilization is set to destroy its root in nature.

The New Economy Coalition is working to bring this idea into the public conversation. But the movement is about more than ecological sanity. It seeks other practical and desirable solutions, like:

• a living wage for workers;
• a more equitable distribution of the fruits of production;
• sharp limits to the political influence of corporations and the exceedingly rich;
• a relocalization and reduction in the scale of economic activity that will bring production into better relation with workers, customers, neighbors and the planet.

In a word, the movement seeks economic justice. That can seem a very different goal than sustainability, but it isn’t. Ironically enough, mainstream economists recognize that the two goals are related. The remedy the mainstream offers for the injustice of poverty is the same remedy it offers for environmental problems: more economic growth. Only if we are wealthier, their argument goes, will we be able to afford environmental quality or solve the problem of poverty.

Ultimately, on a finite planet with a human economy operating at its ecological limit, any further growth in human population or in the scale of the economy degrades our quality of life, further increases our ecological footprint, and leads to the loss of democracy as we yield to technocracy — rule by environmental experts — or ignore ecological constraints and thereby condemn our civilization to collapse.

 

The New Economy Movement insists that this is mistaken. It argues, from evidence and from alternative, finite-planet economic theory, that the attempt to solve our ecological and social crises through economic growth is a fool’s task, because both crises have a common cause: an infinite-planet, perpetual-growth economy has met the limits of a finite planet.

When a financial system designed for infinite growth hits a local or planetary limit, it becomes a pump that sucks money from those who have less and gives it to those who have more. On a finite planet, a perpetual-growth economy eventually encounters the source-and-sink limits of ecosystems, either transgressing them and causing species loss, climate change and ecosystem failure, or crashing because the limit can’t physically be broken.

In the Infinite Planet Thinking of mainstream economics, human population growth is always a good thing: humans are “The Ultimate Resource,” capable of infinite imagination, infinite invention — and this is what allows them to think we can have economic growth forever. But in the world as it is, human invention is limited by physical law: you’ll never have a car that you can push backwards and fill the gas tank. Ultimately, on a finite planet with a human economy operating at its ecological limit, any further growth in human population or in the scale of the economy degrades our quality of life, further increases our ecological footprint, and leads to the loss of democracy as we yield to technocracy — rule by environmental experts — or ignore ecological constraints and thereby condemn our civilization to collapse.

Meanwhile, population growth produces an oversupply of labor that drives down wages, diminishing the middle class, further dividing us into rich and poor, captains and serfs.

Economic growth and human population growth proceed as if the planet were infinite — and those who express concern are challenged with being anti-human, pessimistic, “neo-Malthusian.” The New Economy Movement aims to change that framing of the discourse. With repeated and creative messaging, the phrase “Infinite Planet Thinker” will come to sound as outmoded and ridiculous as “Flat Earth Theorist.” And when that happens, the principles and programs that would preserve democracy and our standard of living — the principles that the New Economy Coalition seeks to advance — will be on their way to general acceptance.

I think that when people see it framed this way, most will choose the New Economy. Imagining the possible, and working to make it real, is a more realistic strategy than continuing to assume the planet is impossibly infinite.


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