We are slowly (too slowly!) but convincingly moving away from a dominant worldview of debt-created virtual-wealth and exploitative global markets—and a severely skewed emphasis on corporate products, profits, and power—and towards diverse, self-reliant, small-scale, local lean economies that value healthy people, happy places, a habitable planet, and a world worth inheriting.
These local lean economies can be described quite accurately as ‘island cultures,’ because they are characterized by broader and deeper ecological intelligence, acknowledgement of clear environmental limits and boundaries, and cognizant of their embeddedness in Earth’s web of life and their direct connection to the natural world—and to its fate.
To an islander, it is clearly evident that the human economy is fully embedded in the closed-loop energy and material flows of the land and surrounding ocean—the local ecosystem—and subject to the same chemical and physical laws of the known universe. The physical environment puts obvious constraints on the growth and development of biological subsystems, which in turn modify their physical environment to adapt as best they can to those constraints.
We are recognizing (once again) that we are not masters over Nature. We are Nature. We live as part of a beauty-full, wonder-full, living, evolving universe. The flourishing of all life, not just human life, is once again becoming a principal moral concern. Progressive economists, with a firm grasp of ecological principles, are championing policies based on the explicit recognition of the interrelatedness and interdependence of all aspects of life on our finite planet. Ancient wisdom traditions that acknowledged and celebrated human embeddedness are being resurrected.
Humanity has had a poor track record of awareness of its devastating impact on the environment until much damage was already done. Agriculture was a response to limits of hunting and gathering. Industrial society leveraged the benefits of highly concentrated forms of fossil-fuel energy, each with ever more devastating environmental consequences. Now we must re-learn how to live sustainably within the ecological limits of a finite planet. An ecologically-aware political economy will come about only through change at both the level of individual behavior—economic ‘consumers’ being replaced by ecologic ‘citizens’—and at the level of social norms and institutions.
Individual actions and values are the ultimate determinants of environmental quality and of the possibility for sustainability. Decisions about what to purchase, eat, wear, and drive; where and how to live; what jobs to seek; and how many children to have—all factor into shaping lifestyles and ecological footprints. Basic knowledge of the core principles of ecology and economics and about their essential interrelationship will go a long way toward shaping the new values that will move us away from mindless hamster-wheel lives of endless frivolous consumption and economic growth and toward a desirable and sustainable future for all.
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. These needs include allowing all living organisms to attain their full expected life spans. The basic criteria for maintaining natural capital and ecological sustainability include harvesting renewable resources at a rate that does not exceed the rate of regeneration, controlling waste streams so that they do not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment, and—for nonrenewable resources—requiring development of comparable renewable substitutes for those resources as they are depleted (recognizing that this will not likely be a simple, low-cost ‘plug-n-play’ substitution).
Ecological systems are closed-cycle and are our best current models of sustainable systems. In natural ecosystems, all waste and byproducts are recycled and used somewhere in the system or are fully dissipated. The human economy needs the same ‘decomposer function’ of ecological systems to allow more complete recycling.
Ecological Economics speaks in the language of living systems using terms familiar to biologists and ecologists: balance, biodiversity, closed-cycle, coevolution, complex adaptive systems, limits, organization, thresholds, tipping points, renewal, and resilience. It values community, compassion, and environmental stewardship. It heeds the ancestral wisdom of indigenous island cultures living in ecological balance with their local surroundings.
A growing ecologically aware culture is ensuring that individual economic actors are no longer simply responding to the narrow profit incentive that, in aggregate, orients the economy towards unbridled growth. The fiduciary principle applied to the economy as a whole—managing the economy within planetary boundaries in trust for future generations—is also guiding economic actors and individual transactions. There is a growing awareness that the social license to operate as an economic actor must also include a globally applicable test for the withdrawal of that license when externalities are generated that transgress planetary boundaries.
All countries and cultures will have a part to play in this great metamorphosis to a worldwide ‘island culture’ that aspires to a future of broad wealth and well-being for humans and for the great diversity of marvelous creatures that inhabit this uniquely life-rich planet. With the human gift of intelligence comes the moral obligation of responsibility. Island cultures recognize that the human economy is a subsystem of the global ecology, not the other way around, and that there are clear limits to biophysical throughput of resources from the ecosystem, through the economic subsystem, and back to the ecosystem as wastes. Biophysical systems, even when they are scientifically well understood, are mistakenly seen as things we live off of, not as places we live within.
From caterpillar to butterfly, we are leaving behind old and severely limiting ways of being, living, and relating to our world and moving on to a higher level of consciousness and awareness that places greater value on truth, beauty, balance, play, connection, community, and complexity and that seeks a grander destiny for humanity on this good, beautiful, bountiful Earth.