In economics our discussion has turned to a truly basic question: what do we really need? Instead of focusing on how we could imagine wanting more than we have, and therefore there is scarcity, let’s examine that basic question. Is there really scarcity? Do we really NEED more goods?
From our book what we need for Well Being
– food shelter etc
– respect of others
– a sense of belonging
– free time & energy to enjoy life beyond work
– ability to make choices about things that affect us
– enjoyment of the natural environment
This goes with a definition of poverty offered by Sen: the ability to appear in a community of one’s peers without shame. In the US, we acquire and focus on goods so much that one can feel impoverished without a TV or a telephone. Perhaps instead of trying to produce so many goods that TVs trickle-down to everyone, we should re-invigorate bowling leagues.
This thinking gets a boost from Ecological Economics – a view of economics that recognizes that the economy is a subset of activity within the larger ecological system of our planet. All of our economic inputs and outputs ultimately connect to that larger system; a system with actual physical limits. We can use our water supply to dilute chemical solutions we’ve made by mining things out of the ground, but dilution can be the solution to pollution (something I learned in college chemistry) only for so long before the concentrations are no longer ignorable. Most likely that will be long after concentrations are having an effect. There’s a system called Ecological Footprint Analysis where researchers add up the amount of arable land needed to support our food consumption, fuel consumption and re-purify our air and water. In the US calculations show we need about 10 hectares of land per person to support our lifestyle. Globally there are about 1.8 per person available.
The Natural Step is a sustainability framework that focuses on core physics principles such as these as a guideline for how we need to run our industries and businesses. The 4 core principles are
1) – from the first law of thermodynamics – matter is neither created nor destroyed. When we incinerate something, it doesn’t just “go away”, it’s transformed into parts that go into our atmosphere, and residue that remains. How does that stuff come back out of the atmosphere? We need to make sure it does, otherwise we are on a path to permanently change our ecosystem with no guarantee that it will continue to support us.
2) the 2nd law of thermodynamics – entropy. Matter and energy continually disperse. So let’s just acknowlege that genetically modified crops can’t be controlled (we can master the laws of physics, can we?) and stop being amazed that chemical compounds from our Teflon pans end up in our bloodstreams. It’s inevitable, so perhaps we should make change up front in how we do things.
3) Recognize the value of ecosystem services to our economy and take steps to protect them. Minimize waste, maximize reuse of resources.
4) Use resources fairly and effectively. When people are in survival mode they don’t take steps to protect resources for later generations. It wasn’t so long ago that the wilderness was a scary place to be tamed, so we chopped down forests and killed off wildlife populations. Now we aren’t so desperate ourselves and we can do better. By ensuring everyone is doing better, we ensure that all resources can be treated respectfully.
Another refinement on the perspective of how we can interact with our multi-thousand-year tested ecological system is to learn from it. Recognize how every output is an input to another process. We like to think we’ve started that with recycling, but in truth most “recycling” today is really downcycling. Soda bottles don’t become soda bottles again, they become park benches. Park benches can become…? We’ve put that off. In a true system, there would be indefinite circulation of materials, just like there is for carbon, nitrogen and water in the ecosystem. The trouble is, we mine things like copper and we create mass quantities of things like phosphorous and then we discard them into the ecosystem where they gum up the works. We need to only discard into the ecosystem what belongs there and can be appropriately handled, and then we need to create our own systems: a technical metabolism, that can cycle non-biodegradable materials or quantities larger than what the natural system can handle.
For this to work, we need to take the future of our products into account at their creation. Wool-polyester might be cheaper to sell, but it’s also non-recyclable – the wool and polyester are too hard to separate. Computers and many electronics have been documented as having as many as 19 different resins in a single box, making them impossible to recycle. Recycling is better than pollution control, but designing for a full product lifecycle is the future, embodied in such books as Cradle To Cradle (see their non-profit at GreenBlue.org) and in such legislation as state-level producer responsibility laws for electronic waste.