This question haunts everyone who cares about the world our grandchildren will inherit. Older readers will remember how it was just half a century ago – vibrant and thriving. In the post-war economic boom, governments were oblivious to the slippery slope ahead, the warnings of respected ecologists left unheeded. In due course, this generation will pass on, and, like those who fought in the last war, only archived interviews will remain to relate how it used to be - unless the slide is not only stopped but reversed.
From amongst the din of sustainababble, two dominant solutions have emerged, one political, the other economic. Political radicals strive to occupy the moral high ground. Their finger of blame points at capitalist, globalist bogeymen; some even argue for bringing down the entire edifice. This is not only rash but also highly unconstructive because it immediately alienates much of the public just when consensus is essential. The economic dystopia they would have us adopt never was nor could be a solution, amply evidenced by the environmentally catastrophic Eastern European experiments of the last century. Capitalism in its various shades is far from perfect, but it has and continues to raise millions out of poverty, deprivation and disease.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that market capitalism in its present form is the chief cause of the fast-growing crisis in the environment. Markets haven’t just been free to trade, but free to pollute, degrade and destroy the natural world. The culprits have remained competitive only because they have not had to factor their environmental costs - “externalities” - into their balance sheets. The environment has thus become the casualty of a destructive feeding frenzy on an epic scale, and profound reform is now urgently needed. Nevertheless, stifling the vast energy of business enterprise is not the way; reconfiguring it is. So-called “free markets” are not really free, after all: they operate within the boundaries of tariffs, taxes and law. Just as we are free under the law only so far as we do no harm to others, so we must be free to trade in markets only so long as we do no harm to the natural world. Whereas economic energy has been encouraged to leave a trail of destruction in its wake simply because currently it pays handsomely to do so, that energy needs to be harnessed to benefit the natural world instead - to profit from doing the right environmental thing rather than the wrong. That’s a whole new economics ball-game, and it’s going to take some radical thinking and careful planning to achieve. For sure, it needs a masterplan – a blueprint. And as it happens there is a tried and proven one out there ready and waiting. It’s called Nature.
The key to understanding this is to look at our destructive behaviour as a natural phenomenon. This involves blurring the borders between different disciplines - evolution, ecology, anthropology, economics and business, in order to see the big picture: “consilience”, EO Wilson called it. It begins with genes: just 2% of our active genes divide us from our closest cousins the great apes, but the vast majority of the genes that drive human behaviour have existed in other species for millions of years before we inherited them. One particular subset has been driving our ancient ancestors to colonise new resources possibly for a billion years or more, causing them to adapt and evolve, building ecosystems. Today thanks to technology these same genes drive us to colonise resources on an unprecedented scale. However, the ecosystem in which we now operate is different in that it is a ‘virtual’ one – an ‘economic ecosystem’. Here, we are ‘economic species’, fulfilling roles just the same as any in the wild; except that we are ‘avatars’, able to slip from one role to another. Here, advancing technology provides a pace of evolution that has reached breakneck speed – an economics Cambrian Explosion is unfolding around us.
This ecological perspective reveals the underlying problem. Whereas natural ecosystems have evolved over millions of years allowing species to coevolve to profit from cleaning up after others, creating a balanced and mutually supportive whole, ‘species’ in our economic system evolve much too fast for that. Their avatar mobility allows them to exhaust and destroy natural capital and pollute the biosphere, then move to another niche to start over. Environmental accountability is largely absent because it so rarely troubles their viability. This is not only disastrous for Nature, it’s crazy economics, because depleting natural capital degrades the planet’s ability to sustain stable economies, let alone ecosystems. Nevertheless, we have a big advantage: we can influence the system. By acting decisively to subject markets to the same disciplines as ecosystems we can avoid the steep decline that inevitably overtakes species that degrade their environment.
So how do we make the transformation to nature-friendly economics without sucking energy from the world economy and putting millions out of work? The answer is that, while we cannot be rid of our resource-hungry, market-driving genes, we humans are excellent adaptors, so we are capable of devising clever ways to harness the power of markets to protect and enhance Nature instead of destroying it. For example, by imposing levies on high-carbon and pollutive goods and behaviours ring-fenced into subsidies to fast-track better agriculture and cleaner energy, reduce noxious emissions, and develop and deploy low emission transport. It means old-growth forests being made more valuable intact than destroyed, clean air more profitable than dirty, oceans and wilderness more valuable teeming with wildlife, plastics more valuable recycled than discarded. In this new economic environment, all could thrive without having to struggle with their deepest instincts. And Nature shows us how to do this - after all, it has been building thriving ecosystems for an unimaginably long time.
Although some people cling to the hope that a worldwide ethical revolution will come to the rescue, the essential profound systemic change has no chance of winning through in the short time available if it has to struggle against the immense power of markets driving in the opposite direction. Achieving economic compatibility with the natural world demands a new, ecology-inspired macro-economic policy that puts Nature first. This means only governments can make it happen; only they can change the behaviour of millions at the stroke of a pen. It is therefore our leaders who must be persuaded to imitate Nature’s sublimely successful paradigm and put ecology into economics before it’s too late. But with vision and a renewed political will inspired, activated and energised by vociferous public demand, the bold new plan that is “Ecosystem Economics” could soon surge into action, and the world could begin to breathe again.
The Junglenomics 65-point “Manifesto for an Environment-Saving Economics Revolution” can be found at: https://junglenomics.com