Building an Economy for the Ecozoic


Abstract

The Ecozoic transition, a term coined by Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, is defined as a transition from “an anthropocentric to a biocentric norm of progress. If there is to be any true progress, then the entire life community must progress. Any progress of the human at the expense of the larger life community must ultimately lead to a diminishment of the human life itself” (Berry, 1988).

Currently, in the Anthropocene, the dominant economy is based on extraction, exploitation, violence and infinite growth through the emphasis of individualism, consumerism, linear thinking, commodification, privatization, and human exceptionalism.

This neo-classical economy is dangerously disrupting Earth system functioning, and thus, threatens human life on Earth. Transitioning from the Anthropocene to the Ecozoic is both urgent and necessary for the survival and flourishing of the human race through mutually enhancing relationships between human and non-human life on Earth.

This means that we must transition to an economy that builds toward respecting and preserving life as opposed to getting rich; an economy that does not depict infinite growth on a finite planet; an economy that does not exploit earth’s resources, but recognizes their value to human life as well as the importance in conserving the quality and functioning of the ecosystems that provide these resources.

Introduction

Socio-ecological systems and the policies that govern them seem to be speaking different languages. Humans are deeply dependent on the quality of their environment (Greer, 2011; Kosoy et al., 2012; Ponting, 2007; Postel & Carpenter, 1997; Raudsepp-Hearne et al., 2010; Schumacher, 1974), but environmental policies and neoclassical economic frameworks that perpetuate or even promote the destruction of natural systems, seem to dominate (Beatley, Brower, & Schwab, 2002; Brown & Garver, 2009; Kosoy et al., 2012; Raworth, 2017; Schumacher, 1974).

Today, western cultural norms and capitalist ideals are centred around the concept of higher material consumption and wealth being directly associated with increased happiness and well-being (Cuijpers, 2009; Schumacher, 1974).

This has led to great prosperity for a select few on the planet, leaving everyone else trapped in a pursuit of unyielding economic growth with a crumbling resource base from which they receive fewer and fewer benefits (Brown & Garver, 2009).

Rapid and continuous economic growth is placed at the forefront of development strategies for both developed and developing countries and is considered to be a viable strategy for poverty alleviation under the concept that the rising tide lifts all ships (Raworth, 2017; Schumacher, 1974).

However, this concept is fundamentally false as it is built upon neoclassical economic principles that, while relevant at the time of their conception, cannot be applied in the Anthropocene because the economies they have produced have grown so large that they have become degenerative and are running down the living world on which human well-being fundamentally depends (Brown & Garver, 2009; Greer, 2011; Kosoy et al., 2012; Raworth, 2017).

In this way, economies are behaving as though people, and the survival of the human race don’t actually matter.

Human well-being and the environment

Early work in human well-being research identified “environmental mastery” as a constituent of well-being (Ryff, 1989). “Environmental mastery” in this context can be described as humans acting as though they and nature were separate entities, and not part of the same system, which leads to people treating natural resources solely as commodities existing only for their use and benefit (Kosoy et al., 2012; Schumacher, 1974).

This description of the “rational economic human being” as a master of the environment was, at the time, said to have high levels of well-being because it was based on principles of infinite economic growth being equated to high levels of well-being. Based on these outdated conceptualizations, technological development in different forms has advanced in the interest of increasing human well-being with little consideration for the environment (Kosoy et al., 2012; Ponting, 2007).

“The Environmentalist’s Paradox” is a term that was contrived when the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) failed to reveal a positive relationship between ecosystem services –benefits that humans receive from the environment (Steinman et al., 2017) – and human well-being, which is what was expected (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005; Raudsepp-Hearne et al., 2010). Lessons from the MA, thus point to greater consumption and ecosystem degrade as means to improve human well-being.

However, in the MA, human well-being was measured using parameters that, while accurate, are products of a degenerative economy, meaning that they do not fully capture well-being beyond what is derived from consumption of provisioning services and material goods (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005; Raudsepp-Hearne et al., 2010; Raworth, 2017).

Robert F. Kennedy, American politician, lawyer, and U.S. Senator commenced the shift away from the mindset of equating accumulation of material goods and well-being with his renowned speech given at the University of Kansas in 1968. He stated that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) “measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile” (Kennedy, 1968).

Consumerist culture and materialism no longer fit into this world because they are based on an erroneous perception of the environment that does not promote sustainability, as it does not reflect the correct functioning of the earth system.

In the Anthropocene, much research has emerged regarding the complexities of the earth system. Through this, the positive relationship between ecosystem services and human well-being has become well established through means other than provisioning services and material goods (Adger et al., 2018). In 1997, Gretchen Daily’s “Nature’s Services” thoroughly documented this relationship through detailed descriptions of human influences on natural systems in nearly every recognized biome, and various site-
specific case studies (Daily, 1997).

Humans are not apart from nature, but are mere components of the natural world that have now become a powerful driving force upon which the planet’s future is dependent (Costanza, 2018; Crutzen, 2006; Schumacher, 1974). Human civilizations have lost sight of the value of anything non-economic, unquantifiable and non-anthropocentric such that the inherent value of nature that John Muir fought so hard to communicate, is rarely, if ever, recognized by decision-makers (Kingsnorth, 2017; Smith, 1998).

Instead, the prominent ideology in nature conservation is that of Gifford Pinchot: how humans can benefit from natural resources, which views nature as a means to “progress” through technological exploitation of environment. According to Pinchot, to use these resources sustainably is important, not because of their inherent value, but because of their contribution to continuous economic growth (Smith, 1998).

Because of this Anthropocentric worldview forming the basis of current economic function, theoretical and descriptive analyses of the human-environment interdependence can do little to shift the global economy’s valuation of nature, however, utilizing the concept of ecosystem services can be a valuable first step in the economic transition to the Ecozoic. Ecosystem services, defined generally as the benefits that humans or society as a whole receive from the environment (Steinman et al., 2017), analyze, model, quantify and value the degree to which humans are connected with and benefit from the Earth’s ecosystems (Costanza, 2018).

This concept is a useful tool in the communication of scientists and decision-makers. Further progression into the Ecozoic must utilize this connection in order to move away from the commodification of nature. This can be done through the inclusion of reciprocal feedbacks between humans and their environment which allows people to reflect on their dependence on Earth’s ecosystems, offering a way to conceptualize humanity’s relationship with nature beyond monetary gains (Borgström Hansson & Wackernagel, 1999; Folke et al., 2011; Raymond et al., 2013).

Building an economy for the Ecozoic

Economics frames nearly every aspect of the world. It is the language of public policy and acts as a tool for environmental management (Raworth, 2017). Current economic theory has lost touch with reality in critical ways that is has become blind to potential disaster (Greer, 2011).

Treating the environment as and the resources it provides as valueless, is an immense threat to the society, and to all human and non-human life on Earth (Schumacher, 1974). Therefore, the deep interconnection between human societies and their environment must be translated into values that economists understand.

To do this, I propose a combination of economic frameworks that have been designed to counteract the flawed principles upon which current economies are based:

Firstly, developing the “right relationship” between the Earth and the economy is an ethics approach to counteracting the erroneous perception of the environment in dominant economic frameworks:

“Modern man does not experience himself as part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle of nature forgetting that if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side”

–Ernst Friedrich Schumacher (1974)

Brown and Garver (2009) proposed an economic framework that is based on the right relationship with the environment. It accounts for ecological wealth, is embedded in complex systems, and understands how the planet works and where the processes by which natural resources are created. Through this economic framework, humans are considered as a component of the system, and not the masters of it.

Secondly, because the planet has limits to growth, so must economies. Raworth (2012) proposed an economic framework that works within planetary boundaries, but also has a social foundation, creating a “safe and just space for humanity” (Raworth, 2012). Through this economic framework, commonly known as “Doughnut Economics,” the limits of Earth’s resources are respected while ensuring that all basic human needs are still met.

Thirdly, maximizing individual wealth makes sense only until the consequences must be faced. Greer (2011) proposed a “Three Economies” framework that serves to assign values to the natural products of the environment such that the value of any product is always weighed into the decisions (e.g., environmental policies) that affect it (Greer, 2011).

Through this economic framework, the value of natural products can be communicated in a language that both economists and decision-makers can understand and use. These three economic frameworks each serve a different purpose, but ultimately, contribute to the same underlying goal. Combining environmental ethics (Brown & Garver, 2009), the limits of Earth’s resources (Raworth, 2012) and economic valuation of the environment (Greer, 2011), each add a crucial piece to the puzzle of building an
economy for the Ecozoic.

Developing the Right Relationship

The current economic system treats the environment as a subset of the human economy, and thrives on the concept of unlimited growth and wealth accumulation (Brown & Garver, 2009). The basis for this economic system is fundamentally flawed because it is leading to the economy growing too big for the Earth’s ecological capacity to keep up. This concept of “endless growth” is an irrational goal because the Earth’s resources are finite (Brown & Garver, 2009; Fischer-Kowalski et al., 2017; Kosoy et al., 2012; Raworth, 2012).

Surpassing ecological limits threatens the very resource base that economy depends on, but more importantly, it threatens human life itself. Human well-being is entirely dependent on the well-being of the whole commonwealth of life, and based solely on this principle, the economic system in place should build toward respecting and preserving life as opposed to getting rich (Brown & Garver, 2009).

Due to biology, capacity for complex language and collective learning, and high social skills, humans have become the Earth’s apex predator and developed complex technological innovations that alter the Earth’s systems at a global scale, putting them in a position to have a far greater impact on the planet than other species (Brown & Garver, 2009; Crutzen, 2006; Harari, 2016).

Currently, intense extraction of non-renewable fuels and unsustainable consumption patterns have resulted in serious consequences such as modern-day climate change, increased intensity and frequency of natural disasters and alteration of many natural bio-geochemical cycles (Alexander, Schneider, & Lagerquist, 1997; IPCC, 2018; Schumacher, 1974).

These are all products of a degenerative economy run by humans that have developed the wrong relationship with the environment. Ethically speaking, humans have been given the ability to be cognisant and reflect upon the impacts of their actions of the planet and somewhat understand the complexities of them.

To ignore all that is known in this regard that contributes to the ability of humans to work with the planet rather than against it, would be a complete waste of the unique gift that sets humanity apart from all other living beings on Earth. It is therefore the duty of humans to undo the damages done to the environment by building toward an economy
that restores and enhances the integrity, resilience and beauty of life’s commonwealth.

This is an economy that has the right relationship with the environment (Brown & Garver, 2009). With an economy in the right relationship, well-being of individuals and communities improves, rich and fulfilling lives for all are created, and the health and vitality of the finite ecological community in which we live is supported.

Acknowledging the wealth of nature

To build toward an economy in the right relationship with the environment requires the understanding that wealth is contained in nature as opposed to monetary funds, and that keeping economic activity internal to the biosphere necessitates the elimination of waste within the economy (e.g., keeping overall demands within the atmospheric carrying capacity) (Brown & Garver, 2009).

Outward oriented economies rely on continuous and infinite growth, existing in the wrong relationship with the environment. Their growth relies on the maintenance of favorable export prices and an exchange rate that favors exportation (Dollar, 1992).

This is facilitated by a large labor force lowering the cost of the labor needed to prepare goods for export. This cheap exportation of natural resources has allowed economies to grow extremely rapidly, sending the world into a detrimental positive feedback loop wherein growth of economies and human population lead to increased material consumption and ecosystem degrade.

This has occurred because the dominant western norms put consumption at the forefront, where higher material consumption and wealth are perceived to be directly associated with more happiness and well-being (Cuijpers, 2009). But the true wealth here is found solely in nature, and the focus of the economy needs to shift away from growing profits and toward the commonwealth of life.

True wealth is the ability to maintain life itself, for example, plants using sunlight to create complex sugars which every living thing on earth uses in one form or another (Brown & Garver, 2009). Wealth is found in nature and through products of natural processes.

Money holds only symbolic value created by humans as a mean of exchanging this wealth in various forms throughout the economy. Valuing money over wealth neglects the very thing that makes this wealth possible because it undermines Earth’s life support capacity.

Without the wealth provided through the earth system, without the fundamental processes that maintain life itself, money would be valueless and would cease to exist (Brown & Garver, 2009). Outward oriented economies, negate the processes that create wealth by producing externalities, including waste, a by-product of economic activity, actually treated as something external to the economy (Brown & Garver, 2009).

Simply internalizing these externalities through the pricing/taxing of pollution and other harmful waste products (the creation of a “green” economy (Kosoy et al., 2012)) only takes into account the human costs and perpetuates Anthropocentrism and the concept of human domination over nature (Brown & Garver, 2009).

For example, a suffering frog population impacted by toxic pollutant runoff would be regarded as irrelevant in the green economy, unless people are also affected (Brown & Garver, 2009; Kosoy et al., 2012). It also provides rich companies with a (metaphorical) licence to pollute as much as they can pay for, perpetuating the wrong relationship (Brown & Garver, 2009).

In nature, waste does not exist; everything is used and constantly recycled through the environment. Everything in nature is cyclical, not linear. An economy in the right relationship with the environment would therefore have a framework that is based on these natural cycles, and takes into account all products and processes of manufacturing.

This is referred to as material internalization, where manufacturers are responsible for recycling their material by-products, and not just paying for them to be disposed of or their impacts mitigated. Building on this notion, consumption can no longer be the end of the economic chain, but rather, a gateway to the transformation of the material into something else, taking a cradle-to-cradle approach.

Acknowledging nature as the true wealth of the economy, frames the economy as a circular process rather than a linear one, eliminating the concept of waste and the absorption of externalities via the addition of market prices. This builds toward an economy for the Ecozoic because it takes human well-being’s dependence on the environment into account through the preservation and conservation of natural systems, and forces the economy to remain within planetary boundaries (to be further explored in the following section).

Living Within Planetary Boundaries while overcoming the Social Foundation

Taking the cyclical nature of the Earth and its systems into account, and using the wealth of nature as the basis of the economy, it becomes clear that there are limits to how much an economy can grow; however, considering that economics is a human construction, the basic needs of humans must be supported for everyone (Raworth, 2017).

Much like living within the physical limits of a doughnut, the economy should have a floor and a ceiling. It should be enough to meet the basic needs of all, have a fair distribution of wealth and respect all life while not exceeding planetary limits (Raworth, 2012).

This doughnut framework is visually represented in Figure 1.

Figure 1 The Doughnut economic framework (Raworth, 2012). 

Presently, humanity as a whole is falling below this floor, also known as the social foundation. For example, in Figure 2, the gap between the outer limit of the hunger wedge and the social foundation is the 13 percent of the population that is still undernourished. 

Figure 2 The social foundation (Raworth, 2012). 

To feed these people would only require one percent of global food supply, which is much less than what is wasted in developed countries (Raworth, 2012). The same applies to the income wedge, where the gap represents the 21 percent of people living on less than $1.25/day. To bring these people above the poverty line, would only require 0.2 percent of global income which is a minute portion of the richest people’s income, as more than half the global income belongs to the richest ten percent (Raworth, 2012). 

These disparities have developed under the neoclassical economic framework built on capitalist ideals, which supports single-minded pursuit of riches through the oppression and exploitation of other individuals, communities and the environment (Raworth, 2017; Roberts, 2015; Schumacher, 1974).

The social and economic inequalities perpetuating on the planet are not present due to any inherent economic laws, and cannot be solved through more growth of the economy in its current state of functioning (Raworth, 2017; Schumacher, 1974). They represent failure in the design of the current economic system and the need to restructure the way in which wealth is defined and distributed throughout the economy and the power dynamics that control these processes (Raworth, 2017).

Capitalism, consumerism and materialism have pushed passed the environmental ceiling on many indicators, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3 Environmental ceiling (Raworth, 2012). 

These cannot fit into this world because they have no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited (Schumacher, 1974). Surpassing these planetary boundaries has led to climate breakdown, ocean acidification and biodiversity loss (Raworth, 2017).

Between the social foundation and the environmental ceiling, lies a possible future for humanity that meets the needs of all while remaining within the means of the planet (Raworth, 2017).

Happiness and well-being

If we are to live within the doughnut, the false concept of GDP as a measure of economic progress must be ousted (Raworth, 2017). The need to continue growing the economy and increase GDP stems from the mindset that the more wealth and items that one has or owns, the greater happiness one experiences (Inglehart & Klingemann, 2000). When observing the relationship between happiness indicators and GDP, it is clear that it is not a linear one (Inglehart & Klingemann, 2000).

The relationship was originally thought to be linear because richer nations tended to be happier than poorer nations. It is made clear by Inglehart and Kingemann (2000) in Figure 4 that once a certain threshold of GDP is reached, happiness does not increase as much with further increases in GDP. Increases in income for very poor countries do increase happiness significantly, however it has little effect on richer countries (Cuijpers, 2009).

Figure 4 Happiness vs. GDP per capita by country (Inglehart & Klingemann, 2000). 

Nothing in nature grows forever, so an economy that does not follow the laws of nature is destined for a downfall sooner or later (Raworth, 2017). Building an economy for the Ecozoic requires a foundation based on the true laws of nature, and must take into account the place of humans within their environment.

This involves moving beyond the conceptualization of the “rational economic human” and placing a new portrait of humanity at the core of new economic theory wherein humans are reciprocating, interdependent, and deeply embedded within the living world (Raworth, 2017).

The Doughnut Economy is a framework that further emphasizes the interconnection between humans and the environment, and supports human well-being through the changing of the central goal of the economy from GDP growth to stability within the doughnut (Raworth, 2017).

This builds toward an economy for the Ecozoic because forcing the economy to remain within planetary boundaries ensures that valuation of the environment reflects economy and management system that prioritizes environmental conservation over profit, giving the human population a better chance at survival.

Economics for Survival

“Study how a society uses its land, and you can come to pretty reliable conclusions as to what its future will be.”

–Ernst Friedrich Schumacher (1974)

Emerging well-being research and patterns of societal collapse through natural resource exhaustion have led to the recognition that all humans are, and always have been, an important component of the earth system (Ponting, 2007).

The inhabitants of Easter Island in 800 A.D did not foresee the inevitable collapse of their society resulting from their unsustainable consumption patterns of the finite lumber resources on the island. Societies such as Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, the Indus Valley and Ancient China followed similar patterns of environmental exploitation leading to eventual societal collapse (Ponting, 2007).

Modern societies are going down the same path, but this time, it’s having a world- wide impact, consuming the very basis on which it has been established (Schumacher, 1974). The misuse and careless attitude toward the wealth of nature threatens life itself, indicating that a shift away from the current economic framework is a matter of survival more than anything (Greer, 2011; Schumacher, 1974).

Environmental challenges (e.g., flooding, erosion, biodiversity loss) can impact many areas of human well-being such as economic security, basic needs, human health and safety and the quality of social interactions (Larson, 1993).

Therefore, the value of an environmental service must reflect not only its value to human systems, but also the environmental systems humans are embedded in. Bringing this connection to the foreground demonstrates how potential decisions can affect human well-being by altering or restoring ecosystems, and how much these changes matter (Daily et al., 2009).

It also sheds light on the role of people in the creation of their own well-being through conservation of important resources and improving environmental quality.

The Three Economies

The “Three Economies” constitute an economic framework that serves to value environmental services is a method of environmental valuation that reflects the dependency of human on the natural environment while also speaking a language that economists and decision-makers understand: money (Greer, 2011).

The first of the three economies, referred to as “the primary economy,” consists of the natural processes that provide goods and services to human beings without human labor. These are goods such as sunlight and all energy resources derived from sunlight, like coal, oil, and solar power. The primary economy is fundamental to survival (Greer, 2011).

The secondary economy consists of the conjunction of human labour and natural goods that produce the goods and services that nature itself doesn’t provide (Greer, 2011). These are goods such as manufacturing and human provided services. Greer (2011) illustrates how research suggests that nature supplies 75 percent of the value of any given product, with humans only supplying 25 percent, further emphasizing people’s reliance on nature (Greer, 2011).

The tertiary economy places monetary values on these goods based on their places and values within the human environment system (Greer, 2011).

The tertiary economy thus, measures wealth and manages its distribution. These three economies should work together to apply appropriate monetary terms to the goods and services of the economy without undermining the wealth of nature and people’s reliance on the environment, but that won’t happen until the primary economy is recognized.

The famous quotation “money makes the world go round,” first used in the musical Cabaret in 1966, is a terrifyingly accurate depiction of the state of the world’s economies. John Greer highlights this in his book, The wealth of nature: economics as if survival mattered with an even more painfully accurate statement:

“If modern society perishes it will be because the steps necessary for survival weren’t cost effective.”

–John Greer (2011)

Steering away from the concept of money as wealth is not only desirable in an economy for the Ecozoic, but also necessary for survival because the more an economy becomes subject to money, the more difficult it becomes to include products of the primary economy in economic calculations (Greer, 2011).

The true wealth found in nature is lost when the economy is centred around gaining monetary profits from its exploitation. Through the “Three Economies” framework, appropriate monetization of nature would ensure that its value is always weighed into decisions that will affect it in any capacity (Greer, 2011).

An economy that is built for the environment places much less emphasis on monetary accumulation, but rather, uses monetary terms to appropriately valuate nature in a way that emphasizes the wealth derived from it, distribute products of the primary and secondary economies such that basic human needs of all are met, and use natural goods sustainably and within planetary boundaries.

Conclusion

Creating an economy for the Ecozoic is inherently also creating an economy that has the best interests of people at its core. Continuing in a growth-centred economy, is neither ethical nor sustainable.

The survival and welfare of the human species is entirely dependent on the environment, therefore, perpetuating an economy that undermines its value is the equivalent of saying human lives don’t matter.

The right relationship, Doughnut Economics and the Three Economies work synergistically to create an economy for the Ecozoic. The concept of developing the right relationship between the economy and the environment provides an ethical foundation for the economy, based on how humans have a duty to safeguard the very thing that brings them life because of the unique position their cognitive abilities have placed them in the web of life.

Doughnut Economics provide realistic limits for economic growth based on scientific principles and natural laws without ignoring that an economy is entirely a human construct, built to benefit humans. If the basic needs of humans cannot be met, then the economy is flawed.

Using the limits of the Doughnut, the Three Economies communicate the value of nature in a language that economists and decision-makers can understand and utilize.

The Three Economies serve to value the environment in such a way that decisions affecting the environment enhance rather than degrade its true wealth and are focused around sustainability. This allows everyone to meet the social foundation without surpassing planetary boundaries and ensures that environmental quality and protection are prioritized over profit, giving the human population a better chance at survival.

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