Long Term Solutions Require Use
of Ecological Economics
by Stan Moore
April 5, 2003
At the heart of many of the world's conflicts is the simple competition for natural resources by a growing human population. Complicating the situation is greed, thirst for power, and deliberate "lifestyle" choices that place burdens in many ways on the earth, its peoples, its non-human species and the future of all.
Industrialized America and Europe are huge consumers of earth resources, but America is in a class by itself. America is an enormous consumer of energy resources, with per capital consumption far beyond the average consumption of the rest of the world, even the industrialized world. And Americans are a consumeristic, materialistic, "capitalistic" society in which the accumulation of wealth and luxury and "wants" (not needs) seems to be the preoccupying passion of daily life. This American "way of life" is now increasingly being defended by American military power around the world.
Yet, the best available science tells us that the American way of life is not sustainable. The earth itself cannot support the current levels of consumption, while American-style capitalism requires constant "growth" in order to feed the fires of the economic engine that drives the society.
A clear indicator of the dilemma caused by the desire for perpetual economic growth is the damage to the American natural environment as indicated by the growing number of endangered species of all sorts of life forms that depend upon the earth and its physical health for their own survival. For instance, in North America, all native prairie grouse are in long-term decline and headed for extinction or threat of extinction in the foreseeable future. These include greater prairie chickens (Tympanuchus cupido), lesser prairie chickens (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus), sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus), and sage grouse (two species, Centrocercus urophasianus and Centrocercus minimis). All these species were extremely abundant within their native ranges just one hundred to one hundred fifty years ago. These species of wild game birds once numbered in the many, many millions of individuals and provided an abundant, excellent food supply for humans. Now all of them are greatly reduced in number, primarily due to habitat loss or degradation from human economic land use activities (not from human numbers, as most of these birds live in the most sparsely settled agricultural and pastoral lands of America).
A recent report from the National Academy of Science assessed American overconsumption of its own natural resources as being at the rate of approximately 20% in comparison with "sustainable" use. Professor Herman Daly, formerly of the World Bank, and now a member of academia, has written a number of books and articles on the subject of ecological ecnomics, stressing that an accurate understanding of economics places human economies, including industrial economies, in the context of the carrying capacity of the planet itself. Ecological economics assesses value of non-exploited and non-exploitable resources as well as exploitable ones, and attempts to adequately and accurately design cost sheets for all phases of the business cycle, including pollution, land degradation, loss of topsoil and ozone, endangerment of species, and the entire realm of impacts of business/industrial activity. Dr. Daly's book "Beyond Growth" provides much detailed description of these ecological accounting techniques. This sort of accounting is not only necessary for balancing corporate books -- it must be used in the development of national economies for the purposes of harmonious relationships between nations.
So, how could America self-regulate its own economy and provide for its own people, while aiding the process of world peace and security? It appears very clear that America must give up its preoccupation (by both political parties) with perpetual economic growth. Bill Clinton used to say, "It's the economy, stupid" and "We've got to grow the economy!"; whereas the great conservationist David Brower used to say, "Growth is wholesome only in immaturity."
America must learn to balance its economy with its ecology. We must set limits for our national economy and we must adapt our lifestyle to ecological realities. We must regulate our overall economy so that the needs (not necessarily wants) of our people are met, while (C)onserving natural resources, (P)reserving special biological treasures such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, certain old growth forests, etc, and (R)estoring degraded and lost habitats and landscapes. This is the program of CPR recommended by the late David Brower (conserve, preserve, and restore).
By focusing on ecological economics and setting priorities into a sustainable future, Americans could learn to live without the extreme lifestyle that threatens world peace and leads to international conflict over petroleum and other economic resources. By limiting our national economy to a sustainable one in a healthy American environment, America would significantly reduce its overall economy. This would have a rippling effect. We would need less fuel to begin with. We would be only be able to afford a much smaller military to "defend" our "interests". We could focus on truly rewarding lifestyle choices rather than the incessant pursuit of wealth and status.
Professor Daly, in the appendix to his book "Beyond Growth" also called to mind an ancient plan, taken from the pages of the Holy Bible, which (if enacted) could drastically change the dynamics of American life and politics. Dr. Daly did not suggest it would be easy or likely, but if the concept of the "Jubilee Year" as expressed in the Old Testament were applied in principal in America today, the entire balance of wealth and power would be shifted from the wealthy few to the masses at large. The Jubilee Year was a plan from God in which the Hebrew people were to follow up a cycle of seven "Sabbath years", in which the land was allowed to rest from agricultural activity, with a final 50th year of each cycle providing yet more rest of the land, combined with a complete transferral of wealth (in terms of land holdings for this agrarian people). In other words, the wealth of the nation would be relatively equally redistributed to all the families of the nation. With everyone in the nation having an approximately equal portion of the national wealth, there would be no development of classes of wealthy rulers.
Can you imagine George W. Bush ever rising to ANY prominence in a society in which wealth (and family status based on wealth and power) was not a dominating factor in national politics?
The essential point is that living at peace with fellow men is more easily accomplished when living at peace with the environment, with fellow species on this planet in a sustainable world. Economic competition and wealth building are counterproductive in such a worldview. Wars are usually fought over competition for earth resources in some way, shape or form. Human rights and welfare are almost always compromised by economic competition and its ultimate expression -- warfare.
We can see the hazy outline of a better way of life, if we only open our eyes and try to do so.
Stan Moore lives in San Geronimo, CA. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org