Is it time to be bold and replace neoliberal economic orthodoxy with a more plausible model?
The global impacts of Covid-19 have left humanity reeling. This virtually invisible virus has greatly amplified an ongoing planetary emergency and reminded us of the fragility of the human condition.
A global health crisis is being superimposed on a global environmental crisis – defined by climate change, biodiversity loss, soil depletion and chemical pollution.
Available evidence points to close linkages between planetary health and human health. We are up against planetary boundaries as never before. It is high time for a fundamental rethink, particularly regarding prevailing economic practices that define the human presence on planet earth.
With Covid-19, viral contagion has also become an economic contagion, profoundly affecting key sectors in many countries – manufacturing, finance, fossil fuels, aviation, tourism and hospitality.
Should we just go back and pick up the pieces in its aftermath? Or is it time to be bold and replace neoliberal economic orthodoxy with a more plausible model?
It is clear that that we need new priorities: restoring the Earth’s living, organic economy should be at the heart of any recovery; economics predicated on mass production and disposal should be replaced by circular, regenerative economies; local economies should be strengthened and made more resilient; concern for the wellbeing of impacted communities and of future generations should take joint centre stage.
To achieve these outcomes, market-based solutions are unlikely to be the answer. A resurgence of regional, national and world governance that gives powerful fiscal incentives towards sustainable practices should counter unprecedented concentration of economic and financial power.
It is an inescapable conclusion that a deep understanding of the ‘laws of nature’ – where continual renewal is the norm – is required for safeguarding human affairs. Above all else, the planetary emergency demands of us to give ecosystems regeneration unprecedented funding priority and also to recognise it for its employment potential as is already the case in several countries in Asia.
As never before, millions of people across the world are exchanging views on what we can do to safely coexist with the Earth’s ecosystems. We have only a decade to take the key steps to reconfigure our civilisation:
- A circular, regenerative economy
Perpetual economic growth is impossible on a finite planet. When the unpaid costs of current practices are factored in, much of economic practice becomes profoundly uneconomic. All too often, private gains become public costs.
Can we initiate a global green recovery, embedding economics within sound ecological parameters? Can we bring about a regenerative, circular economy that minimises human pressure on nature, avoiding waste, stimulating innovation and opening new job opportunities?
- Planetary health and human well-being
Given that destruction of biodiversity appears to create ‘favourable’ conditions for new diseases to arise, the linkages between human health and planetary health must surely become embedded in public policy.
A holistic approach to health provision is urgently called for, transcending the often narrow focus of national health services. The need for good health provision for all is surely a key part of the global human rights agenda.
- Regenerative farming
Industrialisation and urbanisation have separated humans from the soil that feeds us. In many places, family farms have given way to vast food factories. Unacceptable treatment of farm animals and overreliance on meat-based diets have become the global norm.
New approaches are urgently needed: Safeguarding long-term soil fertility by well-maintained carbon and nutrient cycles is becoming an urgent priority. Policies for stimulating regenerative agriculture and healthy soils are a prerequisite for long-term food security.
- Mainstreaming efficient renewable energy
The global climate emergency requires us to rapidly wean ourselves off fossil fuels. In recent years, efficient, renewable energy technology has become cost competitive with polluting energy systems, even as the price of oil and gas collapses.
To further speed up innovation, a shift of subsidies from fossil fuels towards renewable energy is urgently needed. Main-streaming renewables is a historic opportunity for putting manufacturing, transport and the built environment on a sustainable energy footing.
- Towards carbon positive living
The climate crisis has induced a profound sense of insecurity in millions. It requires responses beyond the actions tentatively agreed by the world’s governments.
Above all else, we need well-resourced global initiatives to secure the biological storage of billions of tonnes of carbon by protecting and regenerating soils, and forest and marine ecosystems. More than ever, this is not just an issue for public policy, but also for individual action.
- Reviving community life
Globalisation has devalued community living, yet local cooperation leads to community resilience, and is a powerful way to cope with crisis situations.
There is now unprecedented scope for co-operating globally to revive local economies – prioritising local production for local consumption, and minimizing the need for production based on long-distance transport.
- Trade in products or exchange of ideas?
In recent decades, global trade has expanded as never before. But its fragility is becoming increasingly apparent, as expressed in frequent supply line interruptions in global, just-in-time manufacturing. Furthermore, global relations are still marred by extreme divergence between rich and poor.
As the routine global trade in products comes increasingly under question, could there be a new emphasis on a global exchange of ideas instead?
- Finance for good
For too long money has been our master, not our servant. Faced with an unprecedented fragility of global financial systems, new agreements are needed to assure that money is generated and used for the benefit of all.
In a planetary emergency, we also need a profound shift of expenditure from military towards environmental security – prioritising adequate water, nutrition, healthcare, shelter, and existential human wellbeing.
- Consumption: from efficiency to sufficiency
Limits to growth also means limits to individual consumption. A steady supply of resources and products to the rich countries has major environmental and social consequences. Living under Covid-19 lock-down has encouraged many of us to go back to basics.
What is sufficiency? How can we assure a better distribution of resources across the world, whilst defining suitable limits to the fulfilment of human needs?
- Creating regenerative cities
We are building an urban future, yet urbanisation in its current form is threatening the very future of humanity and the natural world. The bulk of the world’s resources are used in cites.
A new scientific understanding of their metabolism is required as a basis for minimising their impacts on the global environment, assuring that their resource demands and waste discharge don’t undermine nature’s regenerative capacity.
- Tax shifting
A taxation system which rewards ‘goods’ and penalises ‘bads’ is long overdue, aiming to facilitate an efficient, regenerative, high-employment economy sustained by prudent use of natural capital.
Specifically, taxation needs to progressively shift from labour to resource use, countering pollution and waste, and promoting efficient production methods.
- Earth democracy
The interests of non-human nature and future generations need to be anchored in democratic decision making. We also have to get better at combining a rich, global store of traditional wisdom with the findings of modern science.
Can we envision a new ‘Earth Democracy’ to be rooted within the framework of a strengthened United Nations?
- The speed of innovation
We live in the age of the unprecedented science-driven acceleration of innovation. Technology is in danger of running away with itself. But increasingly the question is: who are the main beneficiaries, who controls the development and uses of technology.
Can technology to become a servant to humanity again, rather than our master?
- Unbridled creativity
Playful creativity is a key feature of being human. But has too much of this has been harnessed to financial interests and consumerism?
More of our creative energy should be devoted to defining a planetary ethic, centred around linking the quest for human well-being with deep respect for all life.
Professor Herbert Girardet is a prolific author, environment consultant and former filmmaker. He is a trustee of the Resurgence Trust (which owns and publishes The Ecologist), co-founder of the World Future Council and member of the Club of Rome.
Image: 100% Campaign, Flickr.