Resource Insights, December 3, 2006


[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.