30 June 2009

The "Strong Sustainability" Paradigm

Recently I've been motivated to think about what peak oil and money systems have to do with where we need to focus our efforts for a better future. Here is what I've come up with:

The Strong Sustainability Paradigm

The current economic crisis is not about the conflict between capitalism versus socialism, left versus right or about questions of globalisation versus social justice. The current crisis happens at a time when we start feeling the impacts of climate change and the degradation of the biosphere on a large scale. It has become an opportunity to examine our perceptions of our personal and economic relationships with the natural world. The current crisis gives us an opportunity to move from the business as usual of economic growth to an understanding and adoption of ecological economics.

How can we find a real response to the needs of climate change and challenges of our times? In terms of current popular culture, a fundamental realignment of approach and priority and a culture shift is needed. We need an approach of Strong Sustainability. Changing the conventional order of things, this approach postulates that the economy is a subset of society (humanity) and that society is a subset of the ecology. All activities therefore ultimately need to conform to ecological limits.

Ecological systems operate in cycles and are self-regenerating. Consumption and the use of biosphere services need to happen within the limits of this regenerative capacity.

A successful reorientation is possible and it requires that we adopt a new set of ethics. In the new set of ethics, we leave the purely utilitarian approach behind and adopt a set of ethics that values life and the integrity of all systems that support life above all else.

The Ecology
The success of this approach and the the application of policies can be measured by a set of specific indicators. What must be measured, first and foremost, is the health and quality of the ecology/biosphere. Among the available indicators to measure this are the ecological footprint, biodiversity indicators, air, water and soil quality standards.

The next priority must be the quality of life and the development of human society. There are indicators that can be used for hat purpose, like the Human Development Index, and other Quality of Life measurements.

“The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment.” What does that mean? Not only does it mean that economic institutions and systems need to function in accordance with nature, but it also means that economic indicators come in third priority only, after the more important ecological and societal indicators. Since a strong sustainability approach cannot accommodate an ever and exponentially growing economy, a set of indicators must be adopted which reflect the quality of economic activity, rather than just its size and trough put. One such such indicator may be Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI).

Economic Transformation
Following the principle of perceiving the economy as a subset of ecological activities, economic systems, institutions and policies need to be designed in a way that they permit and promote a steady state and ecological economy which flexibly adapts to natural cycles of growth and decline. Economic activity can be steered by ecological taxes, a social safety net that promotes social justice and a raft of other policies. Institutions like the financial and money system and values that are built on the premise of unending growth need to be abolished and replaced with systems that can usefully act within the natural limits of nature.

The financial system needs our special attention because it is the 'operating system' of the economy. The global economic growth imperative is inherent in the nature and integral to our current money system, and as a result one of the main drivers of global warming and environmental destruction. Any challenge to the established economic growth paradigm must not just include the regulation of the financial industry, but extend to a fundamental reform of the money system. Invention and transformation can draw on countless experimental as well as established and proven alternatives to the current financial infrastructure which is based on bank issued debt money with compound interest.

Such an approach is a significant departure from the conventional way of thinking. It will not only provide a new vision for the future, but also require workable ways of transitioning from the current economic thinking to a new economy. Because in current practice economics and financial profitability and safety are the final bottom line, any vision of ecological economics and the policies for transitioning to it must be able to address any economic concerns individuals and the business community might have. We must be clearly able to show that the welfare of people is guaranteed even if we work within the ecological constraints of the planet and the land and abandon the growth imperative, and that overall we will be better off this way, rather than when we keep ignoring the ecological limits.