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December 3, 2006

COPERNICUS, DARWIN AND THE CURE FOR AUTISTIC ECONOMICS

[Rachel's introduction: Most environmental problems are rooted in our
economic system, which requires growth for the sake of growth. But it
doesn't have to be this way. Just as we no longer believe that the
earth is flat, humans can learn that we all live together on a finite
planet, which means perpetual growth is impossible.]

By Kurt Cobb

Autistic children can spend much of their time in a world of
elaborate fantasy, emotionally detached from real people and objects.
Unfortunately, it is not much of a leap to substitute the words "most
economists" for "autistic children" in the previous sentence. So
apparent has this become that there is a burgeoning movement to
establish what is now called a "post-autistic economics" to meet the
challenges of describing the real social and physical world we live
in.

This wouldn't matter much were it not for the inordinate say that
economists have in shaping public policy of all kinds and at all
levels. Those of the post-autistic persuasion say that establishment
economists have become a priestly class of sorts that enforces its
neoclassical view on any and all who would dissent. It does this by
keeping them off college faculties and out of key policy positions.

But as the biosphere presses its limits upon us in the areas of
energy, climate, water, soil and pollution, the neoclassical economic
view that human ingenuity will allow the species to ignore every other
species on the planet and grow the world economy indefinitely has
become life threatening, even civilization threatening.

The cure for this view was suggested by a dear friend. It is a
surprisingly simple move, and one with an impressive pedigree. The
Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was the first to work out how
the Earth revolved around the Sun. He thus began a journey for
humankind that removed it from the center of the universe and placed
it, to borrow the words of environmental education giant, David Orr,
"on a small planet attached to an insignificant star in a backwater
galaxy."

What Copernicus had done for astronomy, Charles Darwin did for
biology. After Darwin humans would no longer be set apart from the
animal kingdom. Henceforth, they would be only one of its many
inhabitants, buffeted by the same laws of mutation and natural
selection as the ape and every other living creature.
Anthropocentrism in biology was finished.

It is now time -- long past time -- for a Copernican/Darwinian
revolution in economics in which humans cease to be seen as the
privileged species, homo economicus -- at the center of everything and
exempt from the limits of the biosphere. Instead, humans need to be
placed within the same systems that nourish every plant and animal on
Earth. In this case, however, there is a twist. Far from having to
realize how insignificant and unexceptional we are, we must come to
understand that we have evolved into a different species which
William Catton Jr. has dubbed "homo colossus," a man-tool hybrid
capable of destroying the very habitat that sustains us and so many
other creatures.

The simple fact is that the economy cannot become bigger than the
biosphere. (There are, of course, some believers in Star Trek-style
fantasies who envision us exploiting and living on other planets. To
such people may I suggest that they get started on this project right
away since we are running out of time to turn things around here on
Earth). Humans already consume at least 40 percent of the
photosynthetic product of the Earth each year and, that's an estimate
from 1986 when the population was 5.5 billion. Now it is 6.5 billion.
And it's projected to be close to 9 billion by 2050. Could we
increase our share of the world's photosynthetic product to 60 percent
as the 2050 projection implies and still survive? Would we wipe out
species upon whom we depend, but of which we currently know nothing?
Even if we could transition away from finite fossil fuels, would
finding a theoretical, but as yet unknown, unlimited and pollutionless
energy source really solve our problems? Or would it simply cause us
to bump up against other limits?

When you undergo the Copernican/Darwinian revolution in economics, you
cannot avoid such questions. The physical world and its limits must be
accounted for. To that end some researchers are proposing a
comprehensive biophysical economics. One outline of an approach to
such a problem can be found in an article entitled "The Need to
Reintegrate the Natural Sciences with Economics."

The field of study now known as ecological economics has been
working on the problem in a piecemeal fashion for a long time. But
even though a comprehensive biophysical economics may never be
possible -- since it would require understanding everything about the
natural world -- we must attempt the feat for two reasons: 1) to
expose the dire peril in which neoclassical economics has placed us
and 2) to suggest ways to build an economy that can operate
indefinitely on the Earth and not one that only functions until it
destroys the Earth's capacity to sustain us.

The French writer Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand is reputed to have
said, "Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them." It is
to this problem that economists must now turn themselves.