Economics As If People And Planet Mattered

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by Fred First

Is it just me, or does most everyone you talk to these days think that most everything in politics, economics, society and the environment is broken on a grand scale? Wonder why?

We’ve blindly followed a seriously flawed Human Business Plan for the past century. During that time, we shifted from a needs-based to desires-based economy for profit, not permanence, and proceeded as if the planet’s capacity to give and to recover from insult were infinite. Corporations came to wield unprecedented power over governments, people and planet; their single bottom line has been profit in dollars only. We have acted as if our species’ best interest was the only measure of progress and economic health.

Lately, many are acknowledging that the Human Enterprise is on the cusp of rapid, urgent, revolutionary reorientation, because the old maps are leading us to a dangerous place. These past standards of business simply cannot guide us to the future we want for the next generations. At last, perhaps, we’re not only putting on the brakes at the very edge of the precipice, but radically reversing the direction we must go from this point on, to move us away from, not ever closer, to the brink.

In spite of this somber indictment of what has happened here on my watch, I am newly hopeful. While in such a positive delusional state, let me share an abbreviated sampling of personally-encouraging shifts and insights that seem to me to show we are able—while only possibly willing–to fix what we’ve broken or badly bent while there is still time. I’m day-dreaming here, so just indulge my fantasies.

* The future won’t wrongly pit economy against environment in an either-or battle. In the new economic model, the full value of services to humanity provided by healthy, resilient oceans, soils, forests and the biodiversity of organisms will be given their true value and their health will be as important a bottom-line consideration as profit. [Search: triple bottom line]. National and corporate activities that harm the overall health and sustainability of those globally-shared natural systems will incur shareholder outrage and heavy penalties.

* Corporate profitability and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will no longer be seen as the best measure of how the economy is working for you and me. Measures, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) adopted at the state level by Maryland and others, will give us truer measures of the well-being of all, not the disproportionate new wealth of the few.

* Along these same lines, the nation of Bhutan is using an index of national health called Gross National Happiness. The Happy Planet Index is the measuring tool of the National Economics Foundation of the UK, an organization which has as its logo “economics as if people and planet mattered,” reminiscent of the subtitle of Brit EF Schumacher’s prescient 70’s book on this very topic called “Small Is Beautiful.”

* As more of us consume the planet, the pie does not get any bigger. All our eggs are in this one basket; all humanity’s life support comes from this ONE spaceship Earth. We will necessarily learn to live within our means, and find that there can be progress and prosperity without growth, as that term has come to be understood. [Search: steady state economics]. We can live rich lives with much less STUFF. In the end, the average environmental footprint for all of us will be equal to or less than ONE Earth-worth of raw materials.

So there you have it—a short sample of visions in my daydream for the future. I’m thankful, at least, to be able to dream today, in spite of the nightmare realities we see before us daily in the news. But there IS hope, if we come to discuss and understand this critical time in our history, then to care and act unselfishly and soon.

If these changes do indeed take place, they will not be easy and they will not be sudden, but they cannot be deferred much longer. If these changes do happen, the new place where they take us will represent a conversion from our role as overlords to stewards. If we craft a New Plan and these changes do become reality, our greatest grandchildren will be forever grateful we finally found our way, and had the wisdom and courage to fix what was broken.

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