"Econoclastic" Economics 101

"As the proxies for unborn generations, we have no other choice."

In "Econoclastic" Economics 101, retired educator and environmentalist, Hugh Robertson, explores the intimate connections between the environment and the economy, an economy which is based on continuous growth fuelled by a pattern of ever-increasing and unsustainable consumption.

Hugh Robertson appeals for recognition of the urgent need to address this pattern of unsustainable consumption, and calls on all voters to "question and challenge our political parties relentlessly."

In recent years the environmental debate has focused increasingly on the growth of greenhouse gases and their impact on climate change. Climate scientists and climate skeptics battle one another over whether we will hit an irreversible tipping point when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reach 400 or 600 parts per million or whether it will be a 3 degree or a 5 degree rise in global temperatures that will catapult us into climate chaos. Others even question the notion of anthropogenic (man-made) climate change.

In the heat of the [now long over] debate, we forget that rising atmospheric greenhouse gases are simply a symptom of a system out of balance at ground level. In the short term, it is our ecological footprint (which measures our "ground level" activity) rather than our carbon footprint (which measures our greenhouse gas emissions) that will initially drive changes in our economic system and, subsequently, in our lifestyles.

Our ecological or "ecofootprint" represents the amount of land and water required to provide both the resources that we consume and to eliminate the waste that we create. As a global society, we are now consuming resources and creating waste well in excess of the regenerative capacity of the Earth. Canada has overshot nature’s biocapacity four times - in other words, if everyone lived at our level of material consumption, we would need four planets.

The resources of the planet are not only finite, they are also held in an intricate balance best described by James Lovelock as the Gaia theory. An economic system is only sustainable if it operates within this balance. The old adage may be trite but it is true: the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. If we interfere with nature’s balance by destroying biodiversity and by polluting our water, land and air, we will unleash cascading natural failures that will first decimate economic life before devastating our civilization.

Ecological exploitation has destroyed societies in the past. Ronald Wright and Jared Diamond have chronicled the demise of the Easter Islanders and the Mayans who, by ransacking their resource base, doomed their civilizations. In 1975, the Club of Rome warned us that we risked exceeding the carrying capacity of nature unless we curbed our rapacious consumption. Unlike earlier isolated societies, the destructive power of contemporary global consumerism could take down the whole planet.

The planet can no longer afford political, economic and ecological myopia.

Whether we have hit any irreversible tipping points in resource depletion or atmospheric carbon dioxide is unknown. We have certainly hit - and possibly surpassed - peaks in oil, natural gas, fresh water, arable land, clean air and forests. We have probably passed the tipping point for most edible fish stocks worldwide. The Atlantic cod fishery, for example, has moved from the geography to the history textbooks in the short space of two decades. Fluctuating gasoline prices are merely a taste of turbulent times ahead.

In the economic euphoria and the steadily increasing standard of living for many during the past two centuries, certain myths and values have ingrained themselves in the conventional wisdom. In the West particularly, these beliefs have almost become part of our genetic make-up. The major question now is what impact the impending environmental changes will have on these iconic economic beliefs.

Dominant in our western economic ideology is the notion of constant growth and perpetual progress and prosperity. But present economic growth rates, exemplified by our expansive ecofootprints, far exceed the biocapacity and the regenerative resilience of nature. 

We are no longer living off nature’s interest, we are eating into nature’s capital. Deficit financing does not operate in the natural world and there are no vulture funds to rescue floundering companies. We, the planetary shareholders, have hit nature’s bottom line and the question is now how we stave off ecological bankruptcy.

As a global society, we have to confront both the idolatry and the ideology of economic growth. Growth underpins our values, our assumptions and our lifestyles - it has even bred a sense of entitlement. Our challenge will be to build a stable state economy that operates within the sustainable limits of nature. The challenge is daunting because the growth imperative is deeply embedded in our political economy and in our minds.

We cannot scale back our economic growth rates unless we curb growth’s Siamese twin: consumption. Growth is fuelled by consumption and together they feed on nature’s limited resources. Changing the consumption habits of North Americans will not be easy because spending has become such an integral part of our culture. Even politicians remind us that it is our moral duty to shop.

"Consumption" was once used as a synonym for tuberculosis.

Consumption is destructive both in the scarce resources that it uses and in the waste that it creates. It is estimated that 90 percent of our consumer purchases are in a landfill within 12 months. Not even "green consumerism" is a panacea because, as recent studies have shown, "greenwashing" camouflages many of the detrimental effects of so-called "green" products. Furthermore, "green consumerism" is still consumerism; it merely comforts our conscience.

It is only in the past century that "consumption" has shed its negative image and become a central iconic feature of our economic culture. It was once used as a synonym for tuberculosis and dictionaries still define "consume" as "to destroy, waste, or spend." The excessive lifestyles of the wealthy elites in earlier years were often referred to derogatively as "conspicuous consumption."

What will change our destructive consumption patterns? It is unlikely that governments or corporations will lead the offensive. Will it be individual self-restraint or will excessive consumption, like smoking, soon become unacceptable as a measure of social standing? It may fall to that prominent driver of change – increased prices due to resource scarcity – or it may take a major environmental crisis to fundamentally change our unsustainable consumption.

Growth, consumption and environmental degradation are closely correlated with income. A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives demonstrated empirically what has always been suspected: our oversized ecofootprints are a function of income. The richest 10 percent of Canadians have an ecofootprint that is two and a half times the size of the poorest 10 percent. Another study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington quantified the relationship between work and the environment. The longer Americans work, the more they earn and the more they consume with a commensurate increase in their ecofootprints.

If socio-economic factors, like income and lifestyle, can have such negative ecological impacts on the common wealth, should society impose constraints? Do we allow a wealthy minority to commandeer the commons to the disadvantage of the majority, both born and unborn? Resolving income disparity is sensitive territory in our mixed market democratic system with its delicate balance between individual and collective rights.

Modern governments have assumed a powerful and intrusive economic role and a variety of tools allows them to influence the direction of the economy. But governments also have an overriding responsibility to act as the custodians of our natural legacy - the source of all economic wealth - for future citizens. We look to our politicians for principled leadership and for vision and courage - often in defiance of our own short term self-interest. We expect our elected officials to articulate and foster the moral and ethical imperatives that shape and sustain a vibrant society.

We are in the midst of federal elections in North America surrounded by environmental crises that are rooted in our mega footprints: increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes, the death spiral of the polar icecap and rapidly rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. Previous governments of all stripes pontificated endlessly on the emerging ecological crisis but undertook little concrete action. The planet can no longer afford political, economic and ecological myopia. The crucial question in this important election is whether we, the grassroots voters, will ask the tough questions needed to drive changes in environmental policy.

We cannot allow the pollsters and the politicians to separate and juxtapose the "economy" and the "environment" as opposite and alternative election issues: that is Orwellian doublespeak. The economy and the environment are inseparable and polarizing them for political purposes is a phony and reckless strategy. On these and other environment related issues, we must question and challenge our political parties relentlessly. As the proxies for unborn generations, we have no other choice.

- Originally published in the New Edinburgh News in Ottawa, Canada. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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