Business and pollution as usual have unleashed a rapidly worsening global ecological crisis. We must choose quickly between accepting the dire consequences of global climate disruption, or the embrace of a global ecological reformation.
At bottom, an ecological reformation is expressed by two themes that will define the ecological turn of civilization. First is the pursuit of sustainability. Second is making economic growth result in ecological improvement. That is our central challenge. The goal is to restore the health of the biosphere while building a prosperous and just ecological civilization that will long endure.
This is not utopianism. It is a matter of politics, economics, eco-technology, the nurturance of both freedom and community and therefore justice and fairness as a common human right and responsibility. It is a task consonant with economic growth in accord with ecological market rules and the pursuit of social and ecological justice.
Business and markets and politics are leading us to the brink of ecological catastrophe. Now is the time for business and markets and politics to lead us instead to a just and sustainable ecological future.
Sustainability is more than renewable energy and a quick global transformation from fossil fuels and nuclear power. This is necessary and desperately needed. But, by itself, 100% renewable energy is not sufficient.
Sustainability is life and ecosphere responding to all influences and co-evolving in a matter that maximizes the prospects for all life, not for any particular species. Sustainability is the process that has allowed life to withstand periodic mass extinctions and once again thrive.
What is different as the mass extinction of the Anthropocene unfolds is that it has been both unleashed by humanity, and must be remedied by humanity. Humanity has become a self-conscious participant in the global processes of sustainability and must act as healing force in response to industrial excess.
A global ecological reformation means a top to bottom restructuring in pursuit of sustainability not only of energy, but also industry, agriculture, forestry, fishing and aquaculture. Renewable energy must be combined with global cooling activities to sequester carbon in soil and biomass, removing carbon from air and oceans. The aim is reducing the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere toward pre-industrial levels and decreasing the acidification of the oceans, again toward pre-industrial levels, to a less acidic pH.
Ecological Economic Growth (EEG)
Second, the pursuit of an ecological reformation rests upon taking steps to make economic growth mean ecological improvement. This means separating economic growth from ecological damage, and making economic growth synonymous with ecological improvement. Fundamentally, a global market system whose central concern is economic growth can be sustainable following ecological market rules.
The central challenge in building an ecological civilization from industrial business and pillage as usual is not technical, because solutions abound, but legal and financial, and, therefore, political. An ecological transformation represents a fundamental question posed to the polis, the political community, whose area of concern stretches from the local to the global.
Ecological economic growth asserts that sustainability is both possible and absolutely necessary. The consequences of growth are what matters, not growth qua growth. Ecological consequences, positive or negative, flow from the practices, ethics, rules and laws conditioning the nature of economic growth. Selling trillions of dollars’ worth of information in various incarnations on a renewably powered word wide web has tiny ecological consequences for the n+1 copy. However, replacement of fossil fuels and nukes leads to enormous economic growth and enormous decreases in pollution, depletion and ecological damage. Likewise, sustainable agriculture and aquaculture and forestry will not only produce food, but sequester enormous amounts of carbon in soil and biomass with enormous benefits.
Social and Ecological Justice
Unfortunately, I believe it is not possible to create a sustainable economic growth system based on existing social, political, and economic relations. The unrestrained power of money, technology, and self-interest has proven to be simply irresistible and have shaped a global system of worsening inequality, gigatons of pollution and war.
Rights and responsibilities, freedom and community must be understood and treated as interdependent. Without freedom, community becomes tyranny. Without community, freedom becomes license.
Financial and political power must be balanced, focused and refocused at all times by the rights and powers of those down wind, down river. Power must be democratized. Ecological and social justice must be co-equal imperatives. Without justice we are unlikely to achieve sustainability. Social and ecological justice means, for example, all outputs of industrial production are captured and reused in a zero pollution/zero waste production regime. It is lack of power and injustice that allowed the water of Flint to become poisoned, that enables hazardous polluting chemical plants to be sited in poor neighborhoods from Bhopal in India to Louisiana and Texas in the United States. These plants can be operated to be pollution free or not operate at all. That’s the real cost of doing business, instead of licensing and legalizing the output of poison.
We must address the issues of who owns, who benefits, who controls with the conscious intention of creating sustainable market systems. Where economic growth leads to ecological improvement, the regeneration of the ecosphere, of natural capital, becomes inseparable on the balance sheet with the growth of finance capital, and is supported by the growth of social and ecological justice.
We must face with open eyes basic financial questions of why we continue to pursue self-destructive economic and market activity on a global scale. The triumph of the self-serving few at the expense of the many and of the ecosphere is a consequence not simply of markets, modernity, technology but inseparable from injustice, inequality and powerlessness.
The election of 2020 may mean the beginning of a green new deal and a global ecological reformation. It’s time to understand what’s really at stake. We do not have the luxury of settling once again for marginal change as fires burn in the Amazon, California and Siberia, and the ice melts.
Roy Morrison Builds Solar Farms. His next book is Ecological Economic Growth.