Ecology over economics

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- LESTER Brown, founder of Worldwatch Institute, recently published the book 'Eco-Economy' - an ambitious and broad sketch of a new global economy that prioritises the ecological imperatives of our time.

Brown refers to Thomas Kuhn who, to recapitulate, is the philosopher of science who made 'paradigm shifts' famous. It is widely believed that 'ecological economics', though still in its formative stages academically, may well be the next paradigm in economics.

That Lester Brown associates himself with those heralding this 'shift' or that Eco-Economy means to contribute, should not come as much of a surprise. As founder of the Worldwatch Institute, president of the Earth Policy Institute, prolific author and much-awarded thinker, Brown does have a place in the radical 'eco-eco' movement. The movement conceptualises economics as a subset of ecology, not vice-versa.

In fact, Eco-Economy is precisely about this. It delineates the elements of a 'restructured' world economy that places the earth at the centre of things and 'ecology over economics'. Brown describes what would typify such a new economy - solar and hydrogen energy, new and recycled materials, higher cropland and water productivity, sustainable forestry, redesigned cities, stabilised populations... In fact, it packs in so much that it begins to read like remembrances of proposals past. In Brown's own words, "Every chapter could have been a book in its own right."

What dampens the excitement a bit, however, is the basis of the utopia Brown envisages in his book. Unlike other paradigm shifts, the revolution he describes does not seem revolutionary enough - the heart of the new economy remains the same. It remains technology, even if environment-friendly technology. Brown outlines some 'signs of stress' - climate, water, the biological base. Finally he involves technology saviours and utopic notions like tax shifts, United Nations (UN) leadership, even sitcoms, to spread family planning - but no new earthshaking construct.

Changed lifestyles, a global world, ethics...these do feature as contending foundation stones for Brown's new economy, but are generally in the nature of supplements and complements scattered through the book - they do not take the sort of centrestage that wealth distribution took for Marx or the macroeconomy for Keynes.

As the quality of the earth and life on it deteriorates, old habits will wane, and new realisations dawn. If we broadly conform to this worldview, then building a new economy for the earth will certainly do well to draw from Lester Brown - to draw, in good time, from the radical and not so radical steps that he so succinctly and authoritatively suggests. A must-read for anyone concerned with the earth.


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