Editor’s Note: This article is presented as part of New Economy Week, five days of conversation around building an economy that works for everyone.
by Eric Zencey
Only madmen and economists, Kenneth Boulding once said, believe exponential growth can go on forever.
Beyond all reason and evidence, standard economics remains dedicated to the idea of perpetual increase in our species’ stock of wealth, income, and material wellbeing. Their infinite planet thinking has a long pedigree: from John Locke toward the end of the 17th century to Adam Smith in in the middle of the 18th, the planet was obviously capable of supporting expansion of the human estate for untold generations to come. In their world, vast reaches of the globe had yet to be mapped by Europeans. Humans everywhere were relatively scarce, their powers not yet global in scale, not yet amplified by the extraordinary energies of coal and oil.
But the seven billion of us who are alive today live on a substantially different planet. It doesn’t have supposedly infinite tracts of untramelled, virgin land, ripe for being ravished by swaggering, overconfident exploiters. We need a new, steady state economy suited to the planet we have, not the one that economists thought we had two hundred years ago. We need a post-infinite-growth economy (and new breed of economist) respectful of the notion that there are ecological limits to economic activity. Absent that, our civilization is set to destroy its root in nature.
But the New Economy Movement is about more than ecological sanity. It seeks other practical and desirable solutions, like:
- a living wage for workers;
- a more equitable distribution of the fruits of production;
- sharp limits to the political influence of corporations and the exceedingly rich; and
- a relocalization and reduction in the scale of economic activity that will bring production into better relation with workers, customers, neighbors, and the planet.
We seek, in a word, economic justice.
That can seem a very different goal than sustainability, but it isn’t. Ironically enough, mainstream economists recognize the two goals are related. The remedy they offer for the injustice of poverty is the same remedy they offer for environmental problems: more economic growth. Only if we are wealthier, their argument goes, will we be able to afford environmental quality or solve the problem of poverty.
The New Economy Movement must show–must insist–that this is mistaken. It must show that the attempt to solve our ecological and social crises through economic growth is a fool’s task, because both crises have a common cause: an infinite-planet, perpetual-growth economy has met the limits of a finite planet.
When a financial system designed for infinite growth hits a local or planetary limit, it becomes a pump that sucks money from those who have less and gives it to those who have more. On a finite planet, a perpetual-growth economy eventually encounters the source-and-sink limits of ecosystems, either transgressing them and causing species loss, climate change, and ecosystem failure, or crashing because the limit can’t physically be broken.
In the Infinite Planet Thinking of mainstream economics, human population growth is always a good thing: humans are “The Ultimate Resource,” capable of infinite imagination, infinite invention. But in the world as it is, human invention is limited by physical law: you’ll never have a car that you can push backwards and fill the gas tank. Ultimately, on a finite planet with a human economy operating at its ecological limit, any further growth in human population or the human economy degrades our quality of life, further increases our ecological footprint, and leads to the loss of democracy as we yield to technocracy–rule by environmental experts–or ignore ecological constraints and thereby condemn our civilization to collapse. Meanwhile, population growth produces an oversupply of labor that drives down wages, diminishing the middle class and dividing us into rich and poor, captains and serfs.
Economic growth and human population growth proceed as if the planet were infinite–and those who express concern are challenged with being anti-human, pessimistic, or “neo-Malthusian.” It’s time to change the discourse. With repeated and creative messaging, the phrase “Infinite Planet Thinker” will come to sound as outmoded and ridiculous as “Flat Earth Theorist.” And when that happens, the principles and programs that CASSE and the New Economy Movement seek to advance will be on their way to general acceptance. I think that when they see it framed this way, most people will choose the new, steady state economy. Imagining the possible, and working to make it real, is more realistic than continuing to assume the planet is impossibly infinite.