What value do we put on Earth?

Saturday March 09, 2019 Written by Published in Environment
Nature is commodifi ed in our society and given a monetary value. 19030801 Nature is commodifi ed in our society and given a monetary value. 19030801

The Cook Islands has enjoyed, or suffered, depending on how you look at it, massive growth in the past 30 years. Tourism numbers continue to rise, while infrastructure struggles to cope. This article, based on one taken from the resilience.org website, provides some stark warnings about what to expect if growth continues unchecked. It may be useful for Cook Islands decision makers who want to learn about the consequences of our endless search for economic growth and for people looking for ways of doing things differently.

It took homo sapiens some 200,000 years to reach the first billion people.  In just the past 10 short years the human population increased by the same amount, putting increased pressure on an already crowded planet. In the past decade, the global use of resources spiked upwards, greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase, income and wealth inequality rose to the highest levels in half a century, the global financial system almost crashed, and mammal, bird and insect populations declined markedly because of increased deforestation and industrialised agriculture.

So, while living standards of the poorest rose, which is something to celebrate, there are many reasons to be deeply concerned about what lies ahead. Humanity’s grossly unequal ecological footprints greatly exceed the Earth’s regenerative bio-capacity and it is doubtful whether the planet can support the continued economic growth to which virtually all of the world’s governments are committed.  Can we do better?

Humanity has come a long way in dealing with the environmental challenges we have created. Although it is almost impossible to wrap our heads around the complexity of this Earth system, we can draw from our traditional knowledge, our experience and our personal interests to start to make sense of it. 

As global action steams ahead, Cook Islanders’ voices must continue to be heard, speaking for systemic change that is inclusive and representative as well as for better understanding and respecting of the Earth system.

The opening chapters of the second edition Managing without Growth by Peter A Victor tell how the recent idea of economic growth emerged from the idea of progress, itself only a few hundred years old. 

The book looks at how nature is commodified in our society and given a monetary value, for example a price is put on sea bed minerals or the value of lagoon quality to tourism. 

The downside of this approach is that we often will put a price on an ecosystem but at the same time forget to put a price on exploiting it.  In other words, the externalities of business are not taken into consideration. 

One means of countering this problem is to apply a targeted tax on a product or service to pay for the future environmental damage. Examples of this include carbon tax or an Advanced Disposal Fee for importing or producing single use plastics.  The money collected at the point of sale goes directly to disposing of the product or managing damaging effects.

That all is not well with the growth agenda is made clear by the proliferation of different types of growth, each with its own proponents: green growth, climate-friendly growth, inclusive growth, smart growth, clean growth, shared growth, pro-poor growth, sustainable growth. Managing without Growth is full of evidence showing that growth in fact is seldom green, climate-friendly, inclusive, smart, clean, shared, pro-poor, or sustainable.

It’s not just that the lived experience of economic growth that has been found wanting. It’s also because as long as economic growth remains an overarching economic policy objective, as it does even in rich countries, measures designed to alleviate the many shortcomings of economic growth must be justified as promoting growth, or any one of its surrogates such as productivity, competitiveness or trade. At a more parochial level, new factories are celebrated not because they will produce something that is in short supply but because they will generate jobs. In other words, they solve a distribution problem not a production one, but this is seldom if ever mentioned.

The book continues with an exploration of possibilities for managing without growth in advanced economies.

Three 50-year scenarios are simulated with LowGrow SFC, a new, on-line systems model with many novel features: 1) a base case in which trends and relationships continue, 2) an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction scenario, and 3) a sustainable prosperity scenario with broader environmental objectives as well as reduced income inequality, shorter working hours and the cessation of economic growth.

In the closing chapter there is a discussion of policies that would help make sustainable prosperity a reality.

                - Te Ipukarea Society

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