Back to basics

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Uncontrolled growth of financial debt is currently laying waste to large parts of the global economy. An explosion of ecological debt looks set to do the same, but worse, to a biosphere friendly to human civilisation.

Where climate change, one of many examples of ecological debt, is concerned, NASA scientist James Hansen says we’ve already gone too far. The atmospheric bank of biocapacity is too far in the red and vulnerable to collapse. ‘If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilisation developed and to which life on Earth is adapted,’ he wrote in the Open Atmospheric Science Journal in 2008, ‘


will need to be reduced… If the present overshoot… is not brief,
there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects.’

Yet somehow we still view our relationship to the natural world through
bankers’ glasses. We are triumphal, untouchable, indestructible. If
there are problems, a fix will be found, no change of direction is
necessary. Even though financial credit has virtually collapsed due to
reckless over-extension, we seem incapable of extrapolating that this
might mean other operating systems are similarly under threat. If only
history could give us reassurance.

Two fascinations recently caught me: one for Roman history and the
other for our evolution in Africa and subsequent diaspora. The latter
is constantly being recalibrated. New research recently pushed back the
history of humans in Britain by 200,000 years.

Each gives reason to adjust our priorities. The first concerns the
nature of progress: what justifies the name? At what cost is it
bought? Can something be ‘progress’ if it contains the seeds of its own
downfall? The second is that progress does not march forward through
history in a straight line, like some immortal Roman legion, and can’t
be taken for granted.

The first hominids are now thought to have arrived in Britain 700,000
years ago, when the climate was warm enough for hippos to lumber around
East Anglia, yet there has been continuous settlement only for the past
11,500 years. In response to severe changes in climate, time after
time, Britain was emptied of people. Vast periods of time passed,
lasting 100,000 years, when you wouldn’t have heard a pebble drop in a pond. There was no-one to drop the pebble, and no-one to hear it plop.

Living in one of the most stable climatic periods of the past
half-a-million years has lulled us into a false sense of security. Now,
climate change coupled with other shocks such as the peak and decline
of oil production (itself no answer to global warming) means that our
grip on ordered, reasonably benign societies will be heavily shaken.
What should be our guide to help us through?

We live on an isolated island planet with no known neighbours, so
perhaps we can learn from small island populations who survived harsh
environments for millennia. To tackle the ecological debt crisis, we
need to relearn resilience and adaptability, and to move towards a
dynamic equilibrium between society and nature while ensuring equity
and suffi ciency. There are failures to learn from (Easter Island,
Nauru), but island communities have generally achieved well above
average ecological effi ciency at meeting human needs, and score well
in NEF’s Happy Planet Index. The index compares ecological footprint
data with life-expectancy and satisfaction.

The first lesson is deceptively simple: to respect environmental
limits. Next, resilient local economies – of necessity based on reciprocity, sharing and co-operation, not unlimited growth, fed by individualistic, beggar-thy-neighbour competition.

We are challenged at a global level to learn in a few years lessons that small communities took millennia to arrive at.
In Karl Polanyi’s classic The Great Transformation, he presents social and economic
organisation on islands as evidence against Adam Smith’s more sweeping
assumptions on the central role of markets.

Complex forms of ‘gift exchange,’ in which people meet their needs not
solely through markets mediated with cash, but through the giving and
receiving of gifts, operated over vast areas. This also helped bond
societies. In the face of our rising vulnerabilities, the degree to
which different forms of economic organisation enhance or undermine
social cohesion must become a basic test of their fi tness for purpose.
Polanyi codifi ed certain common principles: reciprocity,
redistribution and ‘householding’, a system that enables needs to be
met in a largely self-reliant way. It’s from the latter that we derive
the root of the word for economics – oikonomia.

Boiled down, the potted small-island survival guide for a troubled
planet would include these essentials: contact with nature, an
awareness of and adaptation to more obvious limits, sharing-based
economies that reduce inequality across a community and maintain
supportive social relationships, food crops bred for hardiness and
grown in mixed, productive plots. Island diets, too, typically follow
the balance in most ecosystems, which is the nine-word mantra for a
more sustainable food system of food found in Colin Tudge’s book :
‘lots of plants, a little meat and maximum variety’. To which, of
course, living on an island, you would add fish.

Similarly, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology recently concluded that a massive shift of support to small-scale farmers using a diverse range of agro-ecological methods would be an efficient way to build resilience, inoculate against food crises, and insure against increasingly hostile weather patterns.

‘Since the Earth itself is developing without growing, it follows that a subsystem of the Earth (the economy) must eventually conform to the same behavioural mode of development without growth,’ writes ecological economist Herman Daly in his book Beyond Growth. In its place, he says, we need ‘a subtle and complex economics of maintenance, qualitative improvements, sharing frugality, and adaptation to natural limits. It is an economics of better, not bigger’. Achieve that, and it’s just possible that our ecological debts might not bankrupt a civilisation-friendly biosphere.

Andrew Simms is policy director of the New Economics Foundation and the author of Ecological Debt (Pluto Press)

To buy Ecological Debt for the discount price of £12 + UK p&p call 020 8348 2724 or email Ref:SIMMS2

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2009

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