Home > Uncategorized > We face disasters on every front

We face disasters on every front

from Neva Goodwin and RWER issue #84

The need for reform is huge – seemingly overwhelming. Yet the motives for reform are springing up all over the place. Maybe this is a moment to be a Pollyanna, rather than a Cassandra: Yes, we face disasters on every front – political, environmental, social – but, as was long ago remarked, nothing so concentrates the mind as the prospect of hanging. The public purpose economy is staggering under the need for reform in education and politics, while the core economy is suffering from the lack of decent, secure jobs in a market economy whose inequalities belittle all but the very few who can think of themselves as the winners. No one believed Cassandra, but today there are many who know we face multiple disasters; probably most readers of this article are already suffering from Pre Traumatic Stress Disorder.[1]

Well, you’re not alone; there’s a gathering tide of despair morphing into activism. The time may have come to be, if not exactly cheerful, at least grimly determined, knowing that you are in good company. If we, individually and together – economists, as well as parents, women in general, and all people who care about the future – recognize the deformation of the private business economy as a central piece of dangers facing us, we will be better able to know where to direct our actions. 

And, of course, if the three human economies can’t reorganize themselves to respect limits, then the outcome will be decided by the economy of nature. One way or another – by design or by disaster – there will be dramatic shifts in the coming decades in the relationship between the human economies – especially that of private business – and the natural world. Changes in patterns of production, consumption, and the use of energy and natural resources will either be adopted by plan or be forced upon us. It is also to be hoped that these shifts will entail some potential for changing the allocation of what society produces – “who gets what.” If this opportunity to move toward a less unequal distribution is wasted, the life-style changes that are necessitated because there is less available to consume will largely be in terms of reduced well-being among the poorest members of society.

Millions of participants in the creation of all the human economies – from international organizations to households, from national to municipal governments – are seeking the roles and outcomes that suit them or that they believe in. During the period of enormous transition that we face, sizeable segments of the U.S. workforce are in a state of anxiety or despair over job uncertainty or unavailability, and the country’s democratic traditions are under severe stress from the capture of government by private business. All of this is the backdrop to responses that will be required to meet the costs of climate change that we are not managing to avert. Rising prices of energy and materials, but not of human labor, are likely to mean a continuing trend toward more service-sector work. To me as an economist, all of this spells lower wages, which means less purchasing power for workers. Some people believe that smarter technologies will keep the relation between production and wages at least stable, but it is clear that there are environmental reasons why the high-consumption lifestyle of the United States is unsustainable anyway. For this country all indications seem to point in the same direction: to a future with less stuff per household. If this is inevitable, we might as well make the best of it: reducing our consumption – by choice or necessity – as we reduce work hours and take-home pay, while increasing leisure and well-being.

Let us, then, imagine ourselves at a time where the major elements of the transition to a post-carbon economy have taken place, along with significant institutional experimentation and reform, and we have settled into a less turbulent period. What might it be like?

If corporations have not managed to redesign themselves to be oriented toward the promotion of human well-being, then the corporate form will have been replaced with other modes of production: co-operatives, local trusts, various not-for-profit organizations, and perhaps other forms not yet discovered. A strong revulsion over the degenerate form of a now decaying civilization could result in the creation of clean governments that have not been captured by corporate interests but are devoted to the good of the people. A renewed and reinvigorated public purpose sector could seriously address inequality and global as well as local poverty.

The throw-away society that developed in the twentieth century has externalized huge costs onto the environment and the people of the future. Long into the future humanity will still be picking up these costs; less figuratively, they will probably still be picking up our trash. They will not be using plastics because these end up in the oceans, where they are ground into non-biodegradable fragments; they will be using wood sparingly in order to allow forests to regenerate; and will replace most chemical fertilizer with intelligent farming systems that rebuild the soil. All of these choices will come with a sizeable shift in prices, with some important materials relatively more expensive than now. The era of expensive energy may, in the most optimistic scenario, give way to one in which solar and other clean sources have become easily abundant, and cheap; but the lessons of frugality and of how to live a better life with less work, less income, and less stuff will have been learned.

The great realization, which could in the present time become a groundswell of hope and cooperative activity, is that, badly as we humans have treated the planet, all is not lost. Efforts at ecological restoration working effectively here and there – in forests in Brazil and Finland, in farms in the U.S. and South Africa, in botanical gardens and parks in Hong Kong and Canada – are showing that nature responds positively to intelligent efforts at restoring ecological quality. Many such efforts include in their positive effects the ability to store atmospheric carbon in soils, plants and water – providing a significant boost for efforts to keep the warming of the planet within less-than-cataclysmic bounds. Ecological repair activities are sometimes based, at whatever remove, on modern science, and sometimes on older knowledge, often that held by indigenous peoples. There is a growing move towards global expansion and sharing of all knowledge about what works to rebuild the health of soils, waters, forests, and even the ecosystems coincident with cities. Not all that has been lost can be regained, but almost everywhere it is possible to recover some degree of ecosystem functionality and resilience.

This is a hope for the future that will necessarily engage all three economies working together. Governments will need to create supportive regulatory environments. As it becomes increasingly clear how much money can be saved, and earned, by restoring the natural capital on which humans and other species depend, actors in the private business as well as the public purpose economies will be motivated to invest in ecological repair. As the evidence grows for the strong positive linkages between human health and well-being on the one hand, and healthy ecosystems on the other, individuals, families and communities in the core sector will take pleasure in participating in local restoration activities.

As new and rediscovered knowledge makes ecological remediation, regeneration and restoration increasingly possible, such work is arising as the most positive opportunity for reversing some of the negative trends of the modern era. It seems not unreasonable to hope that, as all of the human economies move together to work on recovering the balance of human and natural economies, the three human economies will also find opportunities and means to redress the balance among them, reducing the now-overwhelming pull of the profit motive, and better aligning them all toward human well-being and ecological health.

[1] This term seems to have been coined simultaneously by Carolyn Raffensburger and Thomas Homer-Dixon.

  1. June 30, 2018 at 7:09 pm

    I am 100% behind your determined need for a positive vision of a new economy. People rarely get motivated by the Cassandras of despair.

    My small contribution is an ecotopian novel I wrote three years ago: Journey to the Future: A Better World is Possible, set in Vancouver BC in the year 2032. http://www.journeytothefuture.ca

  2. David Harold Chester
    July 1, 2018 at 9:04 am

    If you REALLY want a better world and do not agree that bad news is just around the cornet and we cannot do something about it, Then you will need to better understand about how our social system works. This is a complex subject which I have done my best to simplify and to explain with the least amount of complexity. It is contained in my 310 page book “Consequential Macroeconomics” which avoids the past confusion with a fresh approach to this old pseudo-scientific problem by the use of logical methods and engineering science. Please write to me ( chesterdh@hotmail.com ) for an e-copy for free, and clear your mind about how our system works without the past deliberately introduced confusions and the universities reluctance to be open to new and better ideas.

  3. July 1, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    Periodically we need some positive ideas about how things can become better in the future; otherwise, all seems like despair.

  4. Charlotte Dudley
    July 1, 2018 at 10:32 pm

    I like your idea of “despair morphing into activism”. That is what PostcardToVoters.org is currently doing for me. I like to thing that CRAFTIVISM will move us forward!

  5. July 16, 2018 at 10:01 am

    What you describe is a social upheaval on scale with the French Revolution or the Chinese Revolutions after WWII. These created massive changes, sometime more democratic and representative government, sometime not, new economics, new societal institutions, but also a rebirth of old ways of life. But these were not accomplished without widespread and painful violence and the deaths of thousands or millions. Can we expect the same from the changes you support? If so, do we need to organize for war as well as for government and economic reform, ecological new paths, and the strengthening of old and new ways for community?

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