Wednesday Night #1350 – Notes for Opening Presentation

Economics for a Flourishing Earth

1. Taking Darwin Seriously. Our ethical systems are largely a-scientific; they took on much of their shape before the scientific revolutions of the last 500 years. Though science does not and should not determine our ethical beliefs, neither should those beliefs be uninformed by science. One consequence of the findings of evolutionary biology over the last 150 years has been to undercut the ideas of human uniqueness and privilege. In the first half of the 20th century significant advances in rethinking ethics/evolution were made by Albert Schweitzer and Aldo Leopold. For Leopold we should re-imagine our place in the world from one of master to community member. A primary objective of our actions should be the maintenance/restoration of the beauty, integrity and stability of ecosystems.

2. Barbarian Invasions. Much of the public ethics of our time is supplied by a new state sponsored (autistic?) religion built around macro-economics. Yet, despite its nearly universal global dominance the current macro-economic order is unable to offer convincing answers to many simple questions. Here are four of them:

1. What is the economy for? Answer according to Abel, Bernanke, and Croushore is “Growth in support of consumption in order to improve our way of life”. Income can rise while wealth falls (as we export our natural resources). The acounting is fraudulent: there is no separation of costs from benefits of growth. [Pollution clean up]

2. How does the economic system fit in the earth’s biophysical systems? Answer: Eh? The authors fail to address any topics such as biodiversity, natural resources, environment, climate change, etc. There is either no reference or one is directed to a single page that dismisses the validity of economic indicators.

3. How much growth is enough?
Answer: Growth is always good, except when it causes inflation. There is a failure to recognize that Growth can become uneconomic.

4) What about waste products; e.g. pollution?
Answer: Since clean water and air are not part of the growth measure, paying attention to them can retard progress.

3. Stewardship Economics. We need to rebuild an economic system based on principles of stewardship such as that proposed by Leopold, and which reflects what we know about how the earth works. Two inescapable features of our planet are that it is open to energy, and – for all practical purposes – closed to matter. “Open to energy” refers to sunlight. It is the ability of green plants to capture it and turn it into usable energy that has made the evolution and maintenance of complex life on earth possible. Photosynthesis is the basis of all our wealth. This energy has both a stock (stored in fossil fuels) and a daily flow.
Earth’s system is closed to matter – for all practical purposes nothing leaves and nothing arrives, so whatever we do on Earth, matter stays here. And since it is a materially closed system, burning the stock is destabilizing the climate by overwhelming nature’s assimilation budget.

The four questions revisited:

1. Going back to Keynes. A principal goal should be social and ecological stability.

2. It is subordinate to, and dependent upon, those systems.

3. The economy should fit within the fair human share of the solar flow. Humans should have a fair share of the earth’s capacity to support complexity (“complexity budge”). At this point human beings are taking approximately 50% of the flow.

4. Waste products from the earth’s crust, and the socio-sphere should not be allowed to accumulate systematically in the biosphere. (Natural Step).

Some redefinitions: Money: The socially sanctioned right to intervene in earth’s complexity budget. Cost: How much life it takes to get something. Comparative advantage: the ability to produce goods and services at the lowest cost to the assimilation and complexity budgets.

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