Economics as an Environmental Discipline?

The Economy is Nested INSIDE of Nature and Society, Not OUTSIDE

This is one of the most hopeful little graphics I’ve come across in some years. It represents what could and should be the only way business-from-now-on is done. It represents a new paradigm of how human economies must work if our greatest-grand-children are to have a life worth living on a world worth living in.

This is not at all a new idea. Forty years ago I first ran across the notion that our economic models were flawed and would send us to the brink of disaster. And whaddaya know: here we are staring off the precipice overlooking a dismal future on a very stressed and dis-eased planet.

E F Schumacher was one of the earliest in my history to sound that alarm that bigger isn’t necessarily better, that there is a “human scale” that works, that we must put the health of the environment ahead of corporate profits, that we are as rooted in the literal soil today as we were centuries ago. I’ve just downloaded “Small is Beautiful” (PDF) and will read it all again. If you’ve not read it, I highly recommend it. His influence continues at the Schumacher Institute online.

Hopeful, I’ve called this simple re-ordering of three circles, because I’m finding this notion, this new restructuring of priorities, is finally reaching corporate board rooms.

Why now? Because “hidden costs” and externalized injury to human and natural resources that have come from Big Biz activities at home and overseas are no longer hidden; because the world has become too small to think that pollution by BP in Bangladesh does not have ramifications elsewhere in our earth-commons.

Corporations are changing because they acknowledge their near-sighted emphasis on profits alone is cooking the goose that laid the golden egg. They are realizing that our neo-classical economic models are linear, that they have treated limited resources as if they were unlimited, and such delusion is unsustainable. Gross Domestic Product runs artificially higher than the Genuine Progress Indicator of human contentment and well-being. Unsustainable is not a word that shareholders want to hear, and their earnings alone are not making them happy. Something is missing from the Good Life.

Although I know there are many for who the word “ecological” is a politically-loaded negative, the coming “ecological economics” depicted by this diagram is the model—the only working model–for a renewed relationship with nature and the world environment. Eco-economics will replace the model that saw “environment” subsumed by “economy” and in which nature was nothing more than raw material driving the economic engine whose only measure was dollar profits.

I know this topic doesn’t satisfy the typical blog reader who might intentionally drop by this increasingly remote and forsaken blog outpost. But this restructuring of the future is the most important work my slowly-vanishing generation has before us. It should reshape our communities, our consumption, and our politics. And I will be writing here and elsewhere about it because it would be irresponsible not to.

I, for one, will measure the worth of any future presidential candidate by the degree to which he or she understands the eco-economic model and commits to adapting every aspect of our economy to become part of the solution to the vast list of problems that we, in our indifference, ignorance, greed and gluttony have produced.

It’s not too late to take the wheel. I’m hopeful, and I have not been for a long, long time.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Excellently, passionately written, Fred. I hope this essay is seen by a wide audience. Thank you for answering the call. I’ll send it around on Facebook as soon as I learn how.

  2. Very persuasive. I think this is a viewpoint we’d all do well to think about. It is so often presented to us as the environment vs. the economy — as if whatever we put into protecting the environment somehow comes out of the economy and harms it. Thank you very much for this perspective — I’ve heard the basic idea before, but your presentation is very clear and effective.