In the previous article here, I reiterated a fundamental problem with mainstream economics. It fails to recognize that all economic activity is a part of, and as dependent on the ecosystem as any other aspect of human activity or the activities of other species. I urged mainstream economists not to let debates about the details of theory distract them from shifting their view to one in which the economy is viewed in its true relationship with nature. If they can do that, they can truly help to save the world by rethinking our approach to economic growth which, as it stands, is degrading the ecosystem and pushing us toward environmental collapse.
It’s not all the fault of the economists 🙂
But it’s not just mainstream economics which has lost sight of it’s connectedness to the ecosystem. The problem with economics is, in part, likely a reflection of a broader societal phenomenon. Recently, I came across a couple of David Suzuki articles which highlight the seriousness of the problem.
In “Fragmented worldview disconnects us from nature,” Suzuki observes that today we’ve almost completely lost touch with our connection to the natural world and the interconnectedness of everything in nature:
Throughout most of human history, people understood that we are part of the natural world – that everything is connected to everything else and nothing exists in isolation. This understanding was reflected in songs, dances and stories, which reaffirmed our responsibility to act in ways that will maintain nature’s generosity. It is ironic that today with all of our increased access to information, we no longer seem able to recognize those responsibilities.
How did this happen?
Suzuki touches on some factors which have driven us away from our former closeness to nature. They include the last century’s startling population growth combined with the shift from rural to urban living. Today about half of us live in cities, many of them huge by the standards of a hundred years ago. This has separated us physically from the natrural world. Suzuki observes, “We have become a large-city dweller and in this environment, it is no longer obvious that we still depend on nature….”
Notwithstanding its great benefits, science has played a role as well:
[It] contributes to fragmentation by the very methodology of focusing on a part of nature, isolating it, controlling all outside forces and measuring the result. In the process, we acquire powerful insights into the properties of that fragment, but this is gained at the expense of the rhythms, cycles and patterns that are crucial to our understanding of
Changing our world view
This is not some minor quirk of modern society. “Our worldview has been shattered,” says Suzuki, “and I think the greatest challenge we face will be putting the pieces back together.”
I have to agree that any truly sustainable answer to the ecological mess we’ve made for ourselves will necessitate reshaping the dominant worldview. Part of that will involve rethinking our approach to the economic activity playing havoc with the earth. On her Gaian Economics blog, Molly Scott Cato puts it this way: “We might find a better future… if we, along with many indigenous peoples, began to see the earth as our mother, rather than land as our meal ticket.”
In short, we’ve lost touch with our interconnectedness and our dependence on the ecosystem as a whole. So we have important work to do. Suzuki explains: “To live sustainably within the limits of the ecosystems that support us, we have to put the pieces back together.”
Confronting economics head on
In “Time to Rediscover Our Place in Nature,” Suzuki takes on economics directly. While so far here I’ve focused mostly on the disconnect between economics and the ecosystem as it enables the notion that we need unending growth, Suzuki describes some beliefs mainstream economists use to rationalize such a notion:
Perhaps the most destructive agent of our sense of interconnectedness is economics. Economists assume that when resources are exhausted, human intelligence and creativity will always enable us to exploit or create new materials. Thus, in conventional economics, the ozone layer, underground water aquifers, topsoil, or biodiversity are considered “externalities” that are irrelevant within the economic construct, even though these are all finite and crucial to human survival and health
That kind of argument was common from the late economist Julian Simon, whose works gained him a loyal following. Simon was famous for insisting that the supply of natural resources we normally think of as nonrenewable, such as copper or oil, was not finite. Human ingenuity would always find a way to provide. In the article just cited, for instance, he says, “The trend toward greater availability includes the most counterintuitive case of all–oil.” (Since his death, of course, has come a growing recognition of the problem of “peak oil.”)
What about population?
In all of this, there’s the problem of population growth. Suzuki sums up the point of view of conventional economics: “Economists also tell us that, unlike other species whose numbers are limited by the productivity of a given ecosystem, humans can exceed the ‘carrying capacity’ of a region because of trade.” But this ignores the earth’s carrying capacity as a whole. As Suzuki puts it, “While we may import food… land somewhere was still required to grow it.”
To address this problem, Suzuki turns to the relatively new measure of “Ecological Footprint,” a tool which measures “how much land and water area a human population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb its wastes under prevailing technology.” Not only does the ecological footprint of most countries exceed their fair share of the earth’s land area (true to astounding proportions for developed countries such as the U.S.), but the footprint of humanity as a whole is now “over 23% larger than what the planet can regenerate.” Serious problems indeed.
I’ll let Suzuki conclude this post, for I couldn’t agree more with his final remarks:
I am often asked, “What is the most urgent environmental problem confronting us?” My answer is the human mind, the beliefs and values it clings to. Where once we understood that we are dependent on and interconnected with the rest of nature, the modern mentality believes that we have escaped this reality…. [The factors described] blind us to the consequences of our actions. Our most urgent challenge, therefore, is to rediscover our place in the natural world.
Image source: Topend, posted on flickr