Given the growing and intersecting problems of resource scarcity, environmental degradation, and wealth inequality, it seems clear that our dominant economic paradigms — both in the United States and across much of the world in general — are simply unsustainable. As the website Sustainable Economics notes, the fundamental values inherent in such a system are ill-suited to both long-term prosperity and addressing socioeconomic problems:
Our present economic system predicated on continuous, exponential growth is driving all of us towards a precipice. The entire economy is based on money created from interest-bearing debt which compels society into a “grow or die” situation. If we continue to grow the economy, we must consume more and more resources at an exponential rate. This means exponential rates in natural resource consumption, waste generation, population growth, biodiversity loss. If we do not grow the economy, debts cannot be repaid, bankruptcies loom, and production grinds to a halt. These are the only two options with the current system, both of which are disasters for humankind. Furthermore, the trend of increasing automation of production displaces workers and upsets the labor-for-income game at the very heart of capitalistic society. We simply need fewer and fewer people to work to provide ever higher amounts of output. So we encourage people to consume for no better reason than for the health of “the economy”.
Indeed, constant growth is simply untenable, as we have to stop somewhere. As the article noted, it takes fewer and fewer people to contribute to it. Since the modern world requires only so many workers to build or produce goods, the majority of jobs in developed countries like the United States are in the service sector, namely low-paying industries like retail, hospitality, and dining. We need to change the way we pay people, utilize resources, and consume, and in turn change our attitudes towards work and money.
Any new economic system must be a form of steady-state economics, one that utilizes interest-free money so economies are not under a pressure to grow. Most likely, there will be many different kinds of economies in a gradual transition to a world based on access (instead of ownership). The sharing economy helps people recognizing the inherent inefficiencies in ownership by helping them to utilize their resources more efficiently. Gift economies embody our natural desire to give and help to route resources to real needs, not through a government redistribution scheme but by recognizing collectively that when we give, we also receive the gift of gratitude. Resource-based economies put the focus back on the most efficient use of resources given the sustainable yield of local ecosystems.
Sustainable economics is not limited to just these ideas. Indeed, we are in dire need of new ideas. Time banks, LETS systems, local currencies, transition towns, social dividends, shifting taxation from income to natural resources are all some of the ways to transition out of the highly consumptive society and into resilient, local communities based on foundations of trust and interconnection. Remember, the only thing that gives a system power is people believing in the system’s stories. If we no longer believe in the story of growth, we can, as Gandhi says, begin “to be the change we want to see in the world.”
It all sounds reasonable in theory, but is it possible? The amount of change in thinking that is required is vast, both on an individual and societal level. Moreover, there will always be special interests vested in the status quo that will wield tremendous influence and money to keep things the way they are. Needless to say, it will be a difficult change to make. But with both the global community and the planet reaching a breaking point, it may not be far off, especially as younger generations take hold.
What do you think?