Right Relationship Building a Whole Earth Economy
Peter G Brown and Geoffrey Garver, with Keith Helmuth, Robert Howell and Steve Szeghi;
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco, 2009

Right Relationship is a book for the worrying-about-collapse weary. It is a book for those of us who realize the world we live in is in great peril and that something fundamental has to change to ensure the human story continues and flourishes.

While there are many features of the book that make it hopeful, two in particular stand out. The book lays out a broad framework for change, including a moral base, that encompasses all arenas from the local to the global, and it arises from a Quaker tradition which has had remarkable successes in the past – the abolition of slavery being only one noteworthy example.

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 characterize the current condition of our special planet. As the authors point out, the economy is about relationships, as is ecology. And the current relationship we humans have with both is 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.

Their analysis of the problem we face is not new, but it is one receiving increasing support from an ever wider range of writers and thinkers – from James Lovelock to Lester Brown to Tom Freidman. What is somewhat different about the analysis in Right Relationship is the moral basis for both the analyses, and thus the solutions. 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. The authors point out that many of these truths are also included in sacred texts, so there is not a conflict but rather an integration of tradition spiritual values with the more recent perspective of current scientific inquiry.

The authors point out that even within the hard sciences of physics and biology, the earlier reductionist approach has given way to one of contexts or relationships; the increasing recognition that everything is connected in complex and profound ways. This recognition, however, has not yet been integrated with how we make use of the earth’s finite resources to provide for our well being – how we run our economy. Hence the wrong relationships of our economic activities give rise to ecological catastrophe and social inequity.

“Right relationships” are those which “tend to preserve the integrity, resilience, and beauty of the commonwealth of life.” They are wrong when they tend otherwise. The term “commonwealth of life” is also defined in terms of embracing all living things (i.e. not being human centric), emphasizes the interdependence of all living things, and as something that is concerned with the common good. Hence, the “global economy” is one which “works for all of life’s commonwealth.”

The focus on the economy as the arena for radical change leads to a series of basic questions: what is the economy for? How does it work? How big is too big? What is fair? And How should it be governed?

The authors’ answers to these questions do not come up with anything that has not been previously stated by others. Nor are the steps outlined to achieve a whole earth economy activities that have not been previously identified. What is encouraging about this outline is that it is not just a series of steps identified and then left to others to implement. The book itself is part of a larger Quaker initiated project called the Moral Economy Project (www.moraleconomy.org). Its aim is to take the steps and implement them.

There is no sugar coating of the difficulties involved in creating a new economic paradigm based on right relationships. But the book does identify a wide range of activities and institutions already in place which are actively working for one or another aspect of this grand plan.

One of the proposed institutions is a Global Federation, the purposes of which “are global security and the protection of human rights and life’s commonwealth.” For those concerned about a potentially Orwellian global government, the authors point out the status quo “is to allow actual control of the planet to remain in the hands of the current de facto Big Brother of unelected, unaccountable commercial leaders and entities that recognize no responsibility for the public good.”

In addition to proposing four global institutions needed for a whole earth economy, the authors provide a summary of how close, or far, we are from making such institutions a reality. They ask whether the concepts behind these proposed institutions are ready for implementation. They conclude that models already exist for three of the four proposed institutions, although modification is needed for adaptation to a global level. Federalism, for example, is a well known and established political mechanism that can be adapted to the common good; but no attempts have yet been made to establish it at a global level.

The institution that is least ready is what they term the Global Reserve. “The principal purpose of the Global Reserve is the analysis of the earth’s life support budgets and their uses in accordance with right relationship with the commonwealth of life.” The goal of the Global Reserve is to prevent “the total human economic impact from overrunning the integrity, resilience and beauty of life’s commonwealth.” It is suggested that the IPAT formula be used in this task and that it be expanded to an IPATE formula, where the E stands for ethics. This framework would then be used to identify policy and ethical choices to ensure what impact is sustainable. Use of the IPATE formula ensures that we do not rely exclusively on the T component (technology), which appears to be the default position for world leaders who are intent on continuing economic growth. A whole earth economy requires that we also deal with population and consumption and ethics.

This brief overview of the book may make it sound simplistic and idealistic. While the book is written in a straightforward and accessible style, there are many practical perspectives and informed suggestions to shore up this idealistic framework. And the approach rightly, I believe, clearly identifies the values and ideals that need to change for a whole earth economy to work. And as the authors point out, “what is truly unrealistic is the idea that continuing down the current economic path will ever serve the common good, or save the life forms and cultural traditions of this planet from their march toward extinction.”

The Quaker tradition of taking on the necessary but seemingly undoable is an inspiration. This is a project we can all contribute to, even if we believe many unpleasant consequences of the current paradigm are inevitable. A whole earth economy is possible, the authors point out in the last words of the book “ …if we have time.”