Just How Much Economic Growth can the Planet Sustain?

25 May 2011

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We are told that "the banks are too big to fail" but its the planet that is too big to fail says a panel of ecological experts.

Sadly, economic growth still seems to be taking place at pace with little consideration for its impact on the finite resources of the planet and within a system devoid of any consideration for justice.

If every human were to enjoy the living standard of the average North American, we would need four planet Earth's to sustain us all. The opportunity to achieve this lifestyle is what the conventional economic growth model claims to offer all humans, but it's not feasible or sustainable -- so we need a paradigm shift that restructures the priorities of the economic system and makes it more redistributive, argues this panel of experts.

In considering the climate crisis facing the planet, John Fullerton, founder and president of the Capital Institute says that the people who are driving the economic system and operating at the top of the pyramid are operating in a different paradigm. They try to find market solutions to efficiency problems, but the problems of the planet are not just efficiency problems, they are problems of scale, which the market cannot solve.

Capital Institute is a think tank that focuses on the intersection of the financial system and a sustainable economy. It is a space where interdisciplinary scholars address complex problems of how to shift the economic system to one that operates within the finite boundaries of the planet while yielding just outcomes to people.

According to Fullerton, the idea is that finance fuels the economic system and if the economic system needs to change, then finance is an important leverage point to intervene in, in order to shift the economy. Fullerton's own investment practice is trying to align investment capital with projects that are sustainable in things such as sustainable agriculture and alternative energy.

William Rees, Professor at the University of British Columbia, who collaborates with the Capital Institute, talks about his interest in grounding the economy in reality. He argues, as an ecologist, its fairly obvious that every form of economic activity has material consequences, which has an impact on the ecosystems sustaining the economy and yet almost all economic discussion ignores that dimension of it altogether. 

Another collaborator, Peter Brown, Professor at McGill University, says that we have an economic system that is about creating social stability ostensibly through economic growth, but that this is happening at the expense of planetary sustainability.

Brown argues that the thing really lacking in this current economic system is any sense of fairness. The issue of fair distribution of income and wealth hardly emerges as an issue for discussion -- and fairness to other species that share the planet with us also does not come up in ordinary discourse about economic growth.

Highlighting "fairness" and "justice" is at the heart of the problem of climate change. 

Right now there is a very small percentage of the earth's population consuming the vast majority of what gets consumed.

In this regard, we need to start looking at distributional questions when we examine the ecological footprint, says Julie Schor of the Department of Sociology at Boston College. 

Who are the top emitters of greenhouse gases irrespective of their countries of origin?

There are about one billion people around the world that are high emitters of greenhouse gases.

However, half of the world's population that lives in absolute poverty emit almost no greenhouse gases at all. 

"Let's talk about the climate deal that we make globally and put them at the centre of the deal because those people emit almost nothing." If you put these distributional elements at the core of the climate change problem, what does change is that you are able to think about a solution that benefits the many, says Schor.

On the question of redistribution, Schor argues, so often we are trapped in a conversation about redistribution keeping the system pretty much as it is, letting market outcomes happen, and then letting the state redistribute. But redistribution should be about the fundamental redistribution of access to the planetary resources.

For example, redistribution of access to land or land reform is crucial so that more people have access to land to be self sufficient in food production.

A major part of why our economic system is unsustainable is because it got so unfair -- because power and economic resources have become so concentrated.

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/375.19.

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