The idea struck me yesterday. In the afternoon, I read an interview in the New Scientist with Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and evangelist, in which she says that most people don’t really have a problem with the science behind climate change, but that the solutions to climate change are incompatible with their ideology. Then, before going to bed, I continued reading the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. In the chapter The Capitalist Creed he says: “[Capitalism’s] principal tenet is that economic growth is the supreme good, or at least a proxy for the supreme good, because justice, freedom and even happiness all depend on economic growth”. And then I remembered how many people have asked me if I’d rather live in a communist economy if I don’t agree with the principals of capitalism. It has always surprised me how people make this jump. Why should capitalism and communism be our only two options?
A few lines on in the same section of the book, Harari notes that capitalism’s belief in perpetual economic growth flies in the face of almost everything we know about the universe. And who of us hasn’t heard that infinite economic growth isn’t compatible with finite resources of a finite planet? Add to this the industrial model of take-make-dispose and we end up with depleted natural resources on one side and a pile of waste on the other. This is what I criticise about the current economic system – it’s incompatibility with the natural world and the processes that make it function. So what are the alternatives (other than a communist society)?
To make our economic system sustainable, we need to decouple economic activity from the exploitation of resources and degradation of the natural world. The WWF has offered an alternative and that is the “One Planet Perspective“, which is outlined in more detail in the Living Planet Report. The idea is that we create an economic system that operates within Earth’s ecological boundaries. Financially that means holding businesses accountable for environmental and social costs and rewarding those that support the conservation and sustainable management of ecosystems and use of resources. Economically that means to measure success beyond gross domestic product, not only taking into account the monetary value of products and services but also environmental and social aspirations.
An alternative to the current linear economic system is a circular economy (the video on that website is worth watching) in which products and materials are kept in use as long as possible and waste and pollution are eliminated by feeding materials back into natural systems or by reusing products and materials. Together with a move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable resources sustainable societies that live within their means can be created. Such a system would require us to change our consumption habits and question the idea of ownership. Instead, we would licence items from companies and return them when we need to replace them, so the products or materials can be reused.
I think believing that we can transition to a sustainable economic system is the first step towards creating it. The current system is not the default, it’s been designed and become an ideology. I believe we can do better, do you?