Please don't get this economy moving again -- it will eventually kill us
The stimulus packages now being fashioned around the world must redirect and redesign the current economic order if we are to avoid global ecological disaster that will make the current downturn look mild. The evidence is everywhere that continued dedication to 'economic growth,' per se, will destroy the Earth's ability to provide a healthy home for most life forms. Quite simply, sticking with an economic model that is a major driver toward ecological catastrophe will kill us.
We have to think of two budgets: the ecological budget and the economic budget. The ecological budget is the one on which all life depends. The human economy exists within the ecological budget and is strictly and completely dependent on it.
The ecological budget is already in dramatic deficit: September 23 was Earth Overshoot Day for 2008. The period after September 23 represents the time the human population causes an ecological deficit, using up the Earth faster than it can regenerate. Every year, Earth Overshoot Day comes earlier. This moving date tells the story of a global environment rapidly losing its ability to support life: a story of accelerating climate change; the loss of species and habitats; declining fisheries; the proliferation of ocean dead zones; diminishing freshwater resources; and more.
Here are five steps we can take toward a truly balanced ecological budget that will allow Americans, and all people on Earth, to live fulfilling, healthy, lives which are respectful of the Earth's glorious capacity to support the whole array of vibrant life.
* We must acknowledge that unlimited growth on a finite planet makes no sense. We face a moral choice and challenge: bring the global economy into a right relationship with the planet and its human and non-human inhabitants. Our new ecological and climate reality demands new ways to live within the means of the Earth. Both the stimulus package and long term 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. Money should be understood as a social license to use part of Earth's life-support capacity. Accordingly, we need something like the central reserve banks, but which look after shares of the Earth's ecological capacity, not just interest rates and the money supply. Some functions of governance would have to operate at a global level, through a federation modeled perhaps on the European Union, with enforceable laws designed to assure that individual nations don't overrun Earth's limits.
* Fairness matters. The rules for the developed countries that are responsible for the current ecological crisis must be different from those for developing ones. The new economy must recognize that "free" trade as it is currently understood helps entrench the addiction to consumption; and it is often pursued in a manner that ravages the bio-productivity of developing countries, and impoverishes their citizens. Economic policy must promote not more affluence as currently defined, but rather fairness and sufficiency for all citizens -- so that all may live with self and Earth respect. A "right" human-Earth relationship would recognize humans as part of an interdependent web of life on a finite planet, and the rights of millions of other species to their place in the sun.
* Expand the discussion. The overwhelming scientific evidence is that we are, by our choices, over consuming the planet and accelerating toward ecological catastrophe. Most, if not all, ministers of finance and conventional economists don't account for how the planet works, or even that the economy exists on a finite planet. Scientists morally committed to protecting the global commons and researching ecological limits to the global economy must be added now to the Council of Economic Advisors and similar institutions.
* Look beyond technological fixes. Bold new leaders are needed who will focus on all four policy "theatres" relevant to human ecological impact: technology; population; wealth and consumption; and morals and customs. These new leaders must provide the moral footing that will help people, individually and collectively, to choose lifestyles with radically lower impact. Hydrogen cars and genetically modified agriculture are much easier to push than asking people to consume less or have fewer children, but technology cannot fix all our problems. Moreover, technology-based efficiency gains unfortunately often lead to greater, not lower, consumption. People with fuel efficient cars often drive more, not less. The truth is that efficiency without regulation is not very efficient. Last, more public support is needed where private money has little incentive to go, like massive investment in creating or restoring natural systems that rebuild the bio-productivity of Earth's ravaged ecosystems.
Perhaps most difficult to come to grips with is that the United States is an overpopulated country in an overpopulated world. Each individual American takes far too great a share of what the Earth can withstand -- roughly twice the average European and many more times the average in the developing world. We should escape from the current treadmill that considers more people necessary for more growth. Free access to family planning must be part of health care reform, and a foundation stone of foreign policy. The America projected by the census bureau for mid-century of around 440 million people is a global disaster.
The financial crisis provides the opportunity to fundamentally change, not merely repair or rebuild, our economy. All eyes are now on the Inaugural speech, the budget and stimulus package being put together by the Obama Administration. But it is essential to address the financial and ecological crises together.
We are not principally "consumers," but citizens of the Earth, and guardians of life's prospect on a beautiful and finite planet.
Peter G Brown is a professor at McGill University. Geoffrey Garver is an environmental consultant and lectures in law at Universite de Montreal and Universite Laval. They are co-authors of Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy (February 2009). www.moraleconomy.org