Pondering the Economics of a Planet in Overdraft

08/15/2011 10:05 PM

Our current economic and pricing mechanisms simply don’t square with physical reality: that is the hypothesis of two new, widely-celebrated books, which lead with Global Footprint Network statistics.

The ecological facts on the ground are clear, environmental scientist Lester Brown attests in his book World On the Edge, which he was writing as heat-induced wildfires vaporized almost half of Russia’s wheat harvest, put a fifth of Pakistan underwater and sent food prices spiraling. Yet economic policies continue to be based upon an endless supply of cheap and available natural resources. It’s a disconnect he likens to the theories of astronomy in the days just before Copernicus.

“No previous civilization has survived the ongoing destruction of its natural supports,” Brown writes. “Nor will ours. Yet economists look at the world through a different lens.”
Brown cites Global Footprint Network statistics that show that humanity is using resources and producing carbon dioxide at a rate it would take 1.5 Earths to regenerate and reabsorb.  Accounting systems that don’t take such factors into account are “a formula for bankruptcy,” he writes.

Author and entrepreneur Paul Gilding, who cites the same statistics, ascribes such disconnect to denial. In his book, The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World, Gilding says: “When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response. But the longer we wait, the bigger the response required.”  (Read New Yorker columnist Thomas Friedman’s column,  The Earth is Full, about Gilding’s assertions.)

Gilding believes physical limits will throw the brakes on economic expansion, and prompt a crisis-driven charge to devise new models of progress. Fortunately, he asserts, consumption-based prosperity has always had a tenuous relationship to human happiness.  “How many people,” he asks, “lie on their death bed and say, ‘I wish I had worked harder or built more shareholder value,’ and how many say, ‘I wish I had gone to more ballgames, read more books to my kids, taken more walks? To do that, you need a growth model based on giving people more time to enjoy life, but with less stuff.”



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