Posts Tagged ‘“Right Relationship”’

F(l)ail: How the Establishment Protects Itself While the Earth Declines

Today’s special guest post comes from Professor Peter G. Brown of the McGill University School of Environment, co-author of
Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy
and author of two previous books.

* * *


1. DROWNING IN OUR WORRIES. One of the common problems of our news-saturated culture is “idea fatigue”. People are so overloaded by the constant barrage of new things to worry about, that they become narcotized and unable to be roused to action. We get tired of hearing about the environment, about Afghanistan, about the federal government’s latest shenanigans, about the spread of wildfire zones north and south, about countless other issues – precisely because they *are* countless and no-one’s mind can deal with them all at once.

2. APPOINT A COMMISSION. This is another of the ways in which entrenched institutions protect themselves: by encouraging a sense of powerlessness in people who might otherwise feel called upon to change them. The internal reform efforts which are then put forward by these institutions are welcomed despite their toothlessness – because they allow people to put that issue at the bottom of the worry pile, comforted that at least something is being done.

3. NARROW THE MANDATE. The current Angelides “Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission” is very much a case in point. Even leaving aside its actual inquiry process, which remains to be seen, the very questions it is asking fail to do more than scratch the surface of the problem. But, because it’s being trumpeted as a major reform, a lot of people will sit back and think “Well, at least that’s taken care of” and be distracted by the next new thing to worry about.

4. PRESERVE THE FRAMEWORK THAT LEGITIMIZES YOU. The “Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission” principally looks at how to keep capital markets stable, but pays no attention at all to the fact that these very markets are destabilizing the earth’s life support systems on which the well-being of life on Earth depends. With all the talk about the “getting the economy moving again” and the “recovery” they are able to distract everyone from the biggest disaster humankind has ever experienced. Summers and Secretary Geitner have pulled the wool over our eyes.


The word of the day: praxis

I read an article today on “The Religion of Sustainability”, in which the author calls for less theory and more practical work.

Oh for the day when we all cared about the environment and the human race and that was our single mission. When we didn’t spend most of our time in meetings and forums discussing the issues, rather we were out in the field working on the problem. How many trees have died to produce position papers and minutes from meetings only to be filed away?

I don’t think I was around during this purported Golden Age, but I’m sure it was very nice. (Although, parenthetically, this sounds a lot like the complaints I’ve heard from certain groups of feminists decrying the fragmentation of the feminist movement and wanting a return to the good old days when feminists were much more united in purpose, ignoring the fact that that comparative unity [if it existed] was largely due to the systematic exclusion of Black women, trans women, lower-income women, etc. As you gain a diversity of viewpoints, of course you’re going to have different ideas of what should take precedence, and people are going to argue about them. That’s what people do. Likewise the environmental movement, which has grown enormously and brought in people who weren’t talking each other about this stuff until recently [insert “Twitter will save us all” rant as appropriate].)

So I’m not sure I agree with this article, but it got me thinking about the divide between theory and practice.

Here’s the thing. We’re basically theorists here at the Moral Economy Project. Our core group is largely academics; our mission is largely the promulgation of ideas. I’ll admit, this took some getting used to for me. The main thing I’ve had trouble with is that it’s a lot harder to quantify progress, with theory. When you’re doing concrete physical work, there are benchmarks. Planting ten thousand trees. Reducing energy usage by thirty percent. Preventing fifty tons of electronics going into the landfill. That sort of thing.

How do you do that with ideas? Sure, there are things you can count, if you feel so inclined. Number of books sold, number of people who sign up for your mailing list, that sort of thing. But it’s really, really hard to know exactly what effect you’re having on the minds of the people who hear you. Except when they contact you directly, of course, and only a fraction of readers, listeners, etc. will ever do that.

Which I think is part of what leads to perspectives like in the article above: the idea that because physical work is more quantifiable, it’s accomplishing more, and that theorizing is therefore a waste of time, resources, etc. And I think we’ve all known people who seemed to be “all talk” and had the urge to tell them that if they were really serious they’d push off and go plant trees someplace far, far away.

But one of the main things we’re striving for, in our re-envisioning of the world, is balance – a balance between rights and responsibilities, between pessimism and hope – between our obligations to others, to the world, to God, and to ourselves (insofar as those four things can ever be separated in any meaningful way). That sense of balance has to apply to the blend of theory and practice that makes up our movement as well.

I’m not strong on theory – that’s why all of this has undoubtedly been said before, and better. But I can’t help but appreciate its value. In their own way, the seeds of ideological reform grow into beautiful trees too.

Moral analysis

Here’s a great article about our project from Resurgence Magazine by Jack Santa Barbara, the Director of the Sustainable Scale Project and Associate of the Centre for Peace Studies at McMaster University.

The neoclassical economic paradigm that has been so successful at providing material goods is clearly identified as the main culprit in both the destruction of ecological systems and the creation of enormous inequities that characterise the current condition of our special planet. As the authors point out, the economy is about relationships, as is ecology. And the current relationships we humans have with both are wrong. They are wrong because our economic activities are destroying the life-support systems for the commonwealth of life that sustain us, and these same activities reward those who least need more and disadvantage those whose needs are greatest.

The authors’ analysis of the problem we face is not new, but what is different about Right Relationship is the moral basis for both the analysis and the solutions offered. And what may be even more refreshing for some is that the moral basis is not derived from a ‘sacred text’ but from the fundamental truths of science. Many of these truths are also included in sacred texts, so there is not a conflict but rather an integration of traditional spiritual values with the more recent perspective of current scientific inquiry.

Click to read the whole article.

More news: Right Relationship gets a good recommendation in the Maple Ridge News from BC.

Oh, and in the category of “making me feel like a giant wimp”, here’s Ryan Stotland, who is bicycling 12,000 km to raise money against skin cancer and climate change. Donations for his ride will go to the David Suzuki Foundation and the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal.

Whole Earth Economy business tips

Over at Geoff’s Eco-blog there’s a great new post on “Whole Earth Economy Business Tips”:

Tip 1: Spread the word about the need to re-think our economy. Business is the front line of the economy, the arena in which the exchanges take place that drive our ways of living. Business and consumer choices have an enormous impact on our society and our environment. It is crucial that members of the business community understand the ultimate, long-term ecological crisis our economy faces – a crisis much more serious than the economic and financial crisis of the past year. The problem is not just climate change. It’s also biodiversity losses, threats to ocean health, a nutrient cycle that is out of balance because of fertilization, deforestation, overpopulation and more. We must come to terms with the reality that the global human ecological footprint is greater than what is available, and that we therefore are running an ecological deficit, using up the Earth faster than it can regenerate itself. This means we have to envision a new kind of economy that recognizes the ecological limits of our finite planet Earth.

Click to read the whole article.

Economics Without Ecocide

Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver wrote an article for the Montreal Gazette, Economics Without Ecocide, this past week, which has gotten some great responses from the community. It’s been reprinted at and Share The World’s Resources, among others. We’ve been getting a lot of good mentions around the internet; thanks very much to everyone who’s helping spread the message.

Economics Without Ecocide
November 12, 2009

Guiding the global economy now is apparently in the hands of the G20. In September, at their meeting in Pittsburgh (their third in a year), the G20 leaders adopted what they called a “Framework for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth.”

The framework is cast as “a process for economic co-operation and coordination to help ensure that post-crisis policies avoid a return to dangerous imbalances that undermine long-term economic growth.”

Unfortunately, with the ecological base of the economy falling apart, the Pittsburgh framework will be looked back on as part of the fiddling going on as Rome burned – or, more aptly, as the planet heated up.

Its fundamental flaw? It falls hopelessly short of addressing – or even recognizing – the real crisis facing the economy: The global ecological crisis, and the unwillingness of the global community to steer the economy away from ecological collapse.

This flaw becomes starkly clear when the G20’s program for the economy is examined through the lens of five simple questions: What is the economy for? How does it work? How big should it be? What is fair? and How should it be governed?

Fortunately, an alternative is possible that provides better answers to those questions. It would move the economy toward a mutually enhancing relationship with a flourishing and prospering Earth – if the political will is found to seek a new way. We start by looking at the first two questions. Under the G20 framework, what is the economy for, and how does it work? And what are some better answers to those questions?

The economy is for enhancing ecological and human integrity.

The G20 framework: A key agreement among the G20 was to continue economic stimulus efforts until “recovery is secured” and then to responsibly wind down stimulus programs. But this whole program defines “recovery” in terms of Gross Domestic Product, with sustained growth in GDP as the overarching solution to all of the world’s economic problems – and, by implication, its other woes.

A whole Earth perspective: GDP is not a good in itself – we value growth in GDP because we see it as the means for assuring stability in employment, security of income, and access to what we need to be healthy and happy. But the great threat that now hangs over the world is massive ecological instability in climate, food supply, clean water, biodiversity, ocean health and much more. Rising numbers of environmental refugees are already tragic human emblems of the current degrading of the Earth. These instabilities are the result in large part of the global explosion in economic growth in the last century.

In short, the G20 has it backward. The overarching goal of the economy should be to ensure the Earth’s ecological integrity and resilience so as to prevent the collapse of Earth’s life support systems. Essential for achieving this goal will be either a strategy for decoupling growth from climate change and other ecological degradation (a virtually impossible prospect given trends) – or de-growth and steady state strategies, such as those developed by ecological economists like Peter Victor ( of York University and promoted by groups like the Centre for Advancement of a Steady State Economy, or CASSE (

The economy works according to the laws of science.

The G-20 framework: The G20 agreed to review at an international level the efforts by countries such as the U.S. to increase savings and by others like China and Japan to increase domestic spending and shift away from export-driven economies. This includes mechanisms for “mutual assessment” of each other’s performance on these matters, as well as review by the IMF.

A whole Earth perspective: The G20 approach to balance of payments shows no concern for the health of the biosphere on which the economy, and all of life, ultimately depends. Seeking more balance is a start, but trade policies should drive countries away from not hyperactive dependence on an import-export market that enhances carbon emissions and other ecological harms. Urgent action is needed to monitor the current behaviour and past record of nations with respect to their impact on the integrity and resilience of the Earth’s interconnected ecosystems. The monitoring must be connected to positive and negative incentives or sanctions to move the world’s nations toward responsible stewardship, with an emphasis on over consumers like Canada and the United States.

The economy must stay within the Earth’s ecological limits

The G-20 framework: The G20 agreed on “specific commitments to increase access to food, fuel and finance among the world’s poorest, with a new World Bank Trust Fund to finance investments in food security, a commitment to fund programs that expand access to renewable energy and a call to identify new ideas to strengthen the poor’s access to financial system.” This is done in the spirit of “making the policy and institutional changes needed to accelerate the convergence of living standards and productivity in developing and emerging economies to the levels of the advanced economies.”

A whole Earth perspective: Addressing poverty and working toward the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals is laudable, but raising developing world consumption without contracting “the levels of advanced economies” is a nightmare scenario. It ignores completely the Earth’s ecological capacity and the massive destabilization the of the Earth’s life support systems the economy is already causing. The G20 needs urgently commit resources and brainpower to a more rigorous evaluation of the Earth’s capacity to withstand climate change and other ecological impacts of the economy, and then to develop policies that ensure that the global economy respects those limits.

In the Sept. 24, 2009, issue of Nature, a team of researchers led by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre proposed a series of “planetary boundaries” for ensuring the ecological stability of the planet. This is the kind of work the G20 should explicitly and urgently support and expedite.

The economy must be fair to people and other living things, now and in the future

The G20 framework: The G20’s disastrous goal of bringing developing world consumption levels up to developed world levels at least reflects a notion of fairness. The G20 also agreed to rein in compensation of bankers; yet took no action on a French proposal for a .005-per-cent tax on the $800-trillion global foreign currency market, which could yield $33 billion annually just covering the dollar, yen, euro and pound.

A whole Earth perspective: Fairness is about providing both human and non-human communities of life, and both present and future generations, equitable access to the Earth’s life support systems. Money gives people this access, along with the ability to lay down an ecological footprint. The G20’s timid gesture on banker compensation shows starkly the enduring power of the global financial elite to keep in place the current grossly inequitable system of access to the fruits of the Earth. The failure to rein in – or at least tax – rampant speculation in the global currency market, and to use the proceeds toward the Millennium Development Goals, is likewise a missed opportunity for fairer sharing.

Keeping in mind the millions of other species with which humans share the Earth, equitable access means not allowing people individually or collectively to take too much. The policy of bringing the world’s poor to developed world levels of consumption is a disaster if it does not address patterns of overconsumption in rich countries. Contraction and convergence, informed with rigorous information on the Earth’s ecological capacity, is fundamental to a fair approach to the economy.

Governance reform is essential for a human economy that lives within its means

The G20 framework: The G20 agreed that the G20 forum will now be the main venue for discussing global economic issues from now on. But the criteria for admission are based on GDP (the G20 represent 85 per cent of world output). The G20 also agreed to give greater shares at the IMF and World Bank to China and other Asian countries – several of which want explosive growth in GDP at the expense of the environment. They also agreed vaguely “to phase out fossil fuel subsidies over the medium-term while providing targeted support to help the poorest.”

A whole Earth perspective: Including more countries in the G20 is welcome. But, just as world leaders should include ecological economists and scientists among their top economic advisers, the G20 and global financial institutions would do well to give a strong voice to countries, like Costa Rica, with relatively low per capita ecological impact along with relatively high levels of well being. As to fuel subsidies, in a world facing catastrophic climate change, nothing less than urgent, expedited action to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and to support rapid transition to low or zero carbon alternatives is acceptable.

But the real global governance problem is the lack of strong global institutions to oversee the security of Earth’s life support systems. Increasingly, global environmental problems require a fully functioning global system of environmental rulemaking and enforcement, supported with greatly expanded research into the Earth’s ecological capacity and ways for the human economy to stay within it. Global rules and institutions also must recognize and respond to local needs and circumstances, and empower rather than overly constrain local efforts to maintain ecologically enhancing economies.

The G20 leaders pledged to do their utmost to achieve agreement on climate change at Copenhagen. A new climate treaty could serve as a starting point for the structural changes to global governance needed to face up to the stark reality that for the first time in the millennia of human history, the human economy is now running down the Earth’s ecological capacity faster than it can regenerate. We will find out in Copenhagen whether the G20 will provide leadership in that direction. But the Pittsburgh summit was not promising.

Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver are co-authors of Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy (Berrett Koehler 2009)

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

Interviews ahoy!

Two more interviews to post. Once again, can’t embed most players here (although big thanks to Nettie for telling me how to embed Vimeo video) so you have to click through. Sorry for the 1995-style clunkiness.

September 24: Geoff Garver on the Montel Across America radio show. I don’t know if there’s a way to auto-cue the player (little help, anyone?) so you have to scroll across to about minute 77 to get to where Geoff’s bit starts.

September 30: Peter Brown on Earthbeat. Special show about the recent Pacific disasters.

We’re a regular media blitz, we are.

New interview!

Peter Brown was interviewed yesterday on the second hour of The Marc Steiner Show (a radio program in Baltimore), and the podcast of the program is now available.

“We think that there is huge evidence that our economic system is in wrong relationship with the planet, and we are dismembering the life support systems of this planet. This economic system is being held together by band-aids and string, by the Fed and by Secretary Geithner and the current administration, and we think it’s time for a very thorough rethink of the future of life on Earth.”