Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Ecological Economic Growth – An Imperative Policy Path

Antarctic sunset. NOAA photo.

Antarctic sunset. NOAA photo.

By Roy Morrison

The fact that it was warmer in parts of the U.S. and Europe in February 2018 than at the North Pole should get more than our passing attention. It is time to pursue a global agenda for dramatic and healing change an emergency basis. It is a time to seriously examine and then pursue an agenda for global ecological economic growth, to take the necessary steps to enlist market forces, the price system, law, and regulation to make economic growth mean ecological improvement. Is this wild eyed ecological heresy? Or it is a road that can allow a global market system to pursue profit, the regeneration of ecosystems, social and ecological justice?

All of us concerned about the emergent global ecological catastrophe need to examine and, in my view, embrace an ecological global economic growth agenda as our individual and collective guide for building a sustainable and just ecological social system, an ecological civilization.

Right now, we are afflicted and assaulted by the murderous inanities of an administration of polluters attempting to eviscerate the biosphere in the name of free markets, and it is precisely the moment to pose and to practice a countervailing and healing doctrine of the necessity of building a global ecological economic growth system. Deliverance cannot be a return to the pre-catastrophe certainties of neoliberal internationalism and the Washington consensus embracing pollution and inequality more or less as usual with limitations on the margin of pollution, depletion, and ecological damage. Nor can we be satisfied by amorphous voluntary plans to limit global climate increase to two degrees centigrade.

We must embrace ways to systematically slash global greenhouse gas emissions to a sustainable 21 gigatons per year, or three tons per person carbon dioxide equivalent combined with annual sequestration of gigatons of carbon in soil and biomass reducing atmospheric carbon to sustainable pre-industrial levels. This means global adoption of a renewable-resource economy to completely displace fossil fuel plus transformation of agriculture, forestry and aquaculture. It means many trillions of dollars in sustainable investment. It means the pursuit not only of dramatic reduction in global pollution, but of global poverty and inequality. An ecological world cannot be sustained on the basis of a consuming and polluting rich minority and an obedient and endlessly suffering poor. We all must and will sink or float together.

I believe this is the only realistic and practical path to both ecological and social deliverance. The other alternative is de-growth, to pull the plug on economic activity and economic growth, the global depression, deindustrialization path. This is politically and practically impossible. It is a call that will be rejected by the rich, the middle class and certainly the poor. Still increasing global population calls for an increase in output or a radical redistribution of resources. It is only the path of economic growth leading to ecological improvement that poses a realistic possibility for global convergence upon sustainable norms.

A time of unvarnished and self-conscious attack upon the biosphere by Trump, Pruitt and Zinke helps us pose questions beyond longing for the not so bad old days. First, what does an ecological global economic growth system really mean? Second, why is an ecological economic growth system not only possible, but essential? Third, what are the ways and means of getting from here to there—from an afflicted present to a sustainable, prosperous and peaceful ecological future that will come to be known as an ecological civilization, an enduring human way in the cause of all life on this planet?

The argument that ecological global growth is possible does not imply it is either easy or simply a matter of changes on the margin to industrial business and pollution as usual. Ecological global growth means a fundamental reformation of industrialism. This will mean not green washing, not just slogans, but a dynamic planned, clearly articulated and continuously evolving practices of ecological economic growth, of human activity writ large in service to ecological practices and ecological ends.

The planned specificity I have in mind will arise from a coordinated application of new market rules, prices shaped by ecological assessments and taxes, new law redefining fiduciary responsibility as conduct leading not just to profit, but to ecological improvement, as well as social and ecological justice, not just locally, but ultimately globally. This is not the only possible path toward the pursuit of ecological ends, but I believe it is one most consonant with global realities, possibilities and prospects.

We simply cannot wave a magic wand and assume corporate capitalism does not exist, nor can we suddenly practice a de-growth ethic, celebrating quarterly reports of deepening depression and economic contraction as signs of our coming deliverance from ecological peril.

In contrast, an ecological global growth system understands that there is no necessary connection between increasing mathematical amounts of money and ecologically destructive activities under the rules, laws and practices mandated for the conduct of an ecological global growth market system that we will explore. This is a system that will not be handed to us from on high, from Washington or from Paris climate accords. It is global political and social power, people power, wielded for ecological ends that will mean the active pursuit of ecological global growth whereby economic growth means ecological improvement, the repair and restoration of eco-systems and the living world, of so-called natural capital. Such a transformation is a global task and cannot be separated from the pursuit of both ecological and social justice for all.

The planet cannot survive ecologically with a rich high polluting minority and a poor struggling majority any more than, as Lincoln noted, our union cannot exist half slave and half free, it must be one or the other. And power, as Fredrick Douglass understood, will concede nothing without a struggle, in this case a global non-violent struggle for ecological survival for radical reform that is indivisible, at bottom, from the pursuit of ecological and social justice for all.

It is my firm belief if we do not achieve a global market economy that is based on the pursuit and successful conduct of ecological economic growth as an achievable imperative, then it is highly likely that ecological catastrophe will be unleashed on a planetary and geological scale that will impact the planet and the biosphere for many, many thousands of years. This will mean the end of capitalist markets both socially and globally through social, political and ecological collapse. This will be the reality of de-growth as imposed catastrophic stringency. Our only real choice is that we must pursue an ecological growth way as if our lives and our grand children’s lives depend on it, because they do. If we do not pursue an ecological path, we court the advent of climate change that can lead to a period familiar to the Eocene thermal maximum lasting for more than two thousand centuries.

An ecological growth system is a way to slash pollution, depletion and ecological damage, to end global poverty, and embrace a fair and prosperous global deal for all within an ecological global market system that pursues, as economic and political imperative, zero pollution, zero waste, justice and fairness. The birth and development of such a global ecological civilization will mean a global end to poverty and a global convergence upon sustainable norms for all such as a personal sustainable global standard of three tons of carbon per person per year, around 21 gigatons, combined with soil building and biomass to remove several gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere yearly to reduce atmospheric carbon to pre-industrial levels. Such a three tons per person per year goal is the basis for concrete planning and serious action on all scales from your house to nations. The U.S. is currently at around 16.5 tons, Bangladesh is 0.5, South Korea is 11.6 tons, North Korea 1.6 tons.

Achieving ecological global growth is an explicitly high economic growth strategy. It means, for example, a rapid and complete global transformation to an efficient renewable energy system and an end to burning fossil fuels. The technical, economic, political tools are available to plan, catalyze and direct this transformation. We are rapidly running out of time to stop behaving as if we have unlimited license to exceed the carrying capacity of biological systems, which we and all other organisms share and depend upon. To say that our economic system must continue to act as a blind and self-destructive monster is an insult to the power of human imagination, effort and ingenuity that can separate economic growth from ecological damage, for example, the practically limitless ability to trade information of all sorts in a renewably powered cyberspace.

Ecological economic growth represents the active pursuit of sustainability and social and ecological justice. Ecological economic growth is the rejection of neoliberalism and reactionary nativism by employing ecological market means and democratic social choices.

The decision we face is not between embracing planning, or embracing markets. Rather, it is the nature and consequences of both planning and markets that must be carefully shaped and conditioned to achieve ecological ends. It is the market and planning rules, law, and regulations, and the government and democratic structures that support them. This means unequivocally that ecological assessments must make sustainable goods and services less expensive, gain market share, and become more profitable, while unsustainable goods and services become more expense, lose market share and become less profitable. Choices and rules that inform and shape prices is a fundamental basis for an ecological economic growth system. The price system, if and only if we get the prices right, can be a tool for ecological survival.

The wild ferocious power of market forces must be domesticated and used for sustainable ends. This means the adoption of new ecological market rules and the policies and plans that guides and supports them. At bottom it is the human and ecological consequences of economic activity that matters, not the abdication of social and ecological responsibility to a blind pursuit of profit. We can and must assure that economic growth means not just increase of wealth, but means the regeneration of the ecosphere and the improvement of social and ecological justice.

It is well within the power of democracy, of law, new market rules, investment, fiscal and tax policy, and the power of our imagining and intellectual creativity to craft a new ecological world order for economy and markets. This must be built by a combination of bottom up and top down efforts, house by house, block by block, city by city, state by state, nation by nation, and continent by continent. The ecological transformation must be a road that we build as we travel.

Roy Morrison’s latest book is SustainabilitySutra (Select Books, NY 2017). He is currently working on installing solar on working farms


Reuters, February 26, 2018
‘Wacky’ weather makes Arctic warmer than parts of Europe
Alister Doyle Environment Correspondent e/us-europe-weather/wacky-weat her-makes-arctic-warmer-than-p arts-of-europe-idUSKCN1GA2AD

On the duration of the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM)
G3 Geochemistry, Geophyiscs, geosystems Dec, 2007
Authors: Ursula Röhl, Thomas Westerhold, Timothy J. Bralower, James C. Zachos /doi/10.1029/2007GC001784/full

CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita)
Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, United States. 2014 and 1960 data 2018 icator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC

Roy Morrison

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