Carrying Capacity as a Basis for Political and Economic Self-Governance

September 11, 2017

No major civilization has EVER practiced carrying capacity as a basis for political and economic self-governance; carrying capacity has only succeeded in small communities. Of course, we know this from the modern Ostrom view of the commons; but Ostrom never put her finger on the pulse of carrying capacity as the *self-organizing principle between a species and its environment*. Nor has the commons movement recognized the importance of an *empirical way of measuring the metabolism of society* through the cooperative activities of people using resources to meet their biological needs.

In other words, Ostrom and the commons movement have yet to define the dynamic equilibrium which they seek as the balance between two opposing forces – population and resources – which continually counteract each other. Instead, the commons movement is more focused on counteracting the Market and the State than on measuring the replenishment of renewable and non-renewable resources and managing them to sustain their yield. In short, the commons movement does not seem to be producing alternative indicators for the production and provisioning which can be used to guide policy.

The book, Secular Cycles, made me realize that the commons, as Ostrom viewed it and as others are now envisioning it, is too informal and small-scale to work in a way that establishes empirical targets that will bring down exponential growth to arithmetic growth levels; and thus organizing society according to the dynamic equilibrium between population and the availability of food, water and energy. Instead, what we get in the commons movement is a general opposition to quantitative analysis because it reminds people too much of the metrics of unbridled capitalism.

My point is that if we don’t know how to develop evidence-based policy for a soft landing toward a reasonable level of subsistence — and I’ve seen very little of this in the commons movement — then I don’t know how we expect to create a long-term system for meeting human needs through sustainable yields. I would hope that the commons movement begins to create the basis for a viable new society by actually focusing on the optimum rate at which a resource can be harvested or used without damaging its ability to replenish itself. That would be something.

Let me put this in more structural terms. First, the carrying capacity rate for renewable resources follows a carefully guided policy of maintenance and sustenance to ensure that resources are replenished sustainably in meeting the needs of people in the present. This requires that social policies are made more equitable to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. Meanwhile, the needs of people in the future are in no jeopardy, so long as renewable resources continue to be replenished and provisioned within their carrying capacity. Hence, the carrying capacity rate of renewables is geared toward market coefficients for provisioning resources, goods and services for people at the current time, and will continue to be sustainable far into the future. This carrying capacity rate, based on renewable resources, in no way precludes (in fact, should be accompanied with) the creation of taxes toward a universal basic income and for maintenance of renewable resources.

Second, the carrying capacity rates of non-renewable resources are much more challenging and must be treated very differently. Society must decide scientifically how much non-renewable resources to use in the present and how much to save for the future. By guaranteeing that valuable resources will be ‘left in the ground’ or put away securely into a tamperproof lockbox, as it were, this formula has a benefit which, in one way, is similar to how gold used to function as a guarantee of reserve asset values and as a disciplining measure for currency exchange rates. Since a certain percentage of non-renewables are held in strict reserve for future generations, adherence to this process creates a value which is entirely *independent of the market* and is based on a relative scarcity index of non-renewable resources. This fraction (how much non-renewables to use for people now / how much non-renewables to set aside for people in the future) provides for a fixed and stable monetary rate that is tailor-made for the valuation of currency in the present.

In a society which is facing net energy loss and steep declines in non-renewable resources, this would be an extremely stable, strong, treasured, desired, sacrosanct and entirely non-marketized value. Instead of looking at productivity indices, commodity market rates, price inflation or unemployment indicators, monetary economists really ought to be turning their attention to the long-term carrying capacity of the planet’s non-renewables and their sustainability rates. I am in no way suggesting that the world should return to a gold standard; but to generate a system in which currency values are fixed to a meaningful measure of non-renewable resources, similar in some ways to the way that gold used to function. If this is done, the correlation of ecological sustainability with monetary sustainability will become a primary way of steering the world’s economy on a middle path between exponential growth and arithmetic growth, ensuring the sustenance and safely of society during a period of economic decline (originally posted to Facebook, August 2017).

Photo by optick 

James Bernard Quilligan

James B. Quilligan has been an analyst and administrator in the field of international development since 1975. He has served as policy advisor and writer for many international politicians and leaders, including Pierre Trudeau, François Mitterrand, Edward Heath, Julius Nyerere, Olof Palme, Willy Brandt, Jimmy Carter, and His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan of Jordan.Quilligan was a policy advisor and press secretary for the Brandt Commission (1978-1984). He is presently Managing Director of Centre for Global Negotiations and Senior Advisor of Economic Democracy Advocates.He has been an economic consultant for government agencies in Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Norway, Sweden, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Tanzania, Kuwait, India, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Canada, and the United States. In addition, Quilligan has served as an advisor for many United Nations programs and international organizations, including the International Monetary Fund.

Tags: carrying capacity, the commons