How YOU can keep the economics ecosystem healthy!

Economics as though human civilisation matters


By Dave Sanderson

If it’s about production or consumption, making money or saving it, it’s economics.

There’s no-end of different organisations, groups of people and individuals involved in this, they all interact and rely on one another, so it’s a sort of ecosystem. Investors, workers, businesses, governments, banks, traders, reporters, merchants and consumers are each vital in their own way. So too is the earth as it provides the room, the air and the minerals without which none of these types of people could survive and carry out their activities.

In this note, I’ll try to show why this is a useful way to view the vital and often misunderstood topic of economics and highlight why some radical changes are needed if the ecosystem is to remain healthy. And it is vital that it does; ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, as Bill Clinton said when asked what would determine the outcome of the US Presidential election in 1992. And economics will determine whether you and your family have a prosperous future or a poor and chaotic one. Pay attention!

Ecosystems are never static; there’s always stuff going on. When you learn about ecosystems at school, you get to understand the carbon and nitrogen cycles and the flows of nutrients and energy. A healthy ecosystem is rich in species yet stable over time. You hear about the destabilising effects of pollution, changes in food availability and over exploitation by man.

There’s stuff going on in the economics system too; businesses starting while others fail, stock markets rising or falling, innovations disrupting old ways of doing things, growing populations, political shifts, different ideas….and much more besides. There are flows of money, materials and labour, the ebb and flow of demand, the disruption caused by war or famine and the more subtle effects of interest rates and regulations.

People study both economics and natural ecosystems. Whereas the functioning of a lake or forest can be studied scientifically, with experiments to test out ideas, that is not really practical with economics. There’s no equivalent of a placebo or a double blind trial! Instead, there are a number of ‘schools’ of economists, each with their own ideas on how to make the economy work best. The dominant school of economics in the West at the moment, especially popular with right wing politicians and global businesses, is free-market or neo-classical economics. This assumes consumers are individual, logical consumers… which of course we are not. We often buy on emotion and are heavily influenced by marketing, by our peers and by whatever is most popular. While there are certainly circumstances when it is right to say ‘ the market will decide’, there are many occasions when a totally free market is not acceptable; most countries outlawed buying and selling people long ago, for example, whilst regulations ensure pollution is limited and packaged food is safe to eat.

So both the theory and the practice of economics need to evolve, as circumstances change, just as ecosystems do. So what are the major factors that are bearing down on our economy now and which will cause change for us all, whether we like it or not? Here are half a dozen really big (and scary) ones to think about:

  • Global population growth. More workers, more consumers, so a bigger global economy. But this cannot go on forever. There must be a limit on how many people our planet can carry, sustainably. At current levels of consumption, the 2015 population of 7.3bn is using 1.5 earth’s worth of resources, so a population of 9.7bn (as predicted by the UN for 2050) will need approx 2 earths. We only have one…..
  • Resource depletion. We will not run out of iron or aluminium but some scarce materials, such as those used to make touch screens in smart phones could well run out, and soon. Substitutes may be found but we cannot easily replace soils exhausted by intensive agriculture or fresh water pumped dry by irrigation and huge cities.
  • Climate change. Global warming is not a belief; it is a scientifically proven fact. It will lead to crop failures and thus food shortages, the flooding of low lying land and thus mass migration. We must leave most known stocks of coal, oil and gas in the ground if we are to avoid runaway climate change and dire implications for human civilisation.
  • Increasing inequality. Research shows that more equitable societies are generally more stable and happy, yet inequality is rapidly increasing, here and globally. This appears to be a side effect of free market economics.
  • Globalisation / global interconnectivity. Another idea that big business and powerful individuals are keen on, as it enriches them. Yet it means that a problem in one country (such as the collapse of the American sub-prime mortgage market) can rapidly cause problems elsewhere (the 2008 global financial crisis).
  • Ever faster innovation. There are more scientists, technologists and innovators than ever (as the population is bigger). So change is happening ever faster and becoming more difficult to stay on top of. Even for big businesses. IT and artificial intelligence in particular have the potential to seriously disrupt current ways of doing things, with significant but as yet unknown economic implications.

Now these are hard to think about. They always seem just over the horizon; too difficult to deal with today so let’s leave them for another day, shall we? But that just won’t do. The sooner they are tackled, the better. They may represent huge threats but there are also giant opportunities with realistic ways of each of us helping bring them about. Let’s think about a few ways our economics ecosystem could adapt to handle these and what part each of us can play. We don’t want anything going extinct, do we, especially us?

  • Stop human population growth and then let it gently decline. Coercion is unethical and no one wants to tell people how many kids they can have. This is about female empowerment and a culture shift. Aid programmes can help with female education and provision of contraception in those places where it is not available. And families come to realise they can have a better life if they just decide not to have more than one or two kids.
  • Consume less. Do we really want to work harder and harder so we can buy more and more stuff in order to show off? A change of mindset, from ‘keeping up with the Jones’ to being content with ‘sufficient’ while having more time to relax with family and friends. Make the car last another couple of years and don’t buy that extra pair of shoes you don’t really need…. To help this along, Government and media should stop focusing on GDP growth and instead use measures of well-being. As they say ‘Tell me how you will measure me and I’ll tell you how I will behave’.
  • Recycle more. Increasingly products are being designed for reuse or recycling and we should all support this ‘circular’ economy.
  • Renewable energy. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground so we should all swop to electricity tariffs that are 100% renewable. If we can, fit PV panels on the roof. Don’t object to local renewable projects; invest in them instead! Insulate the house and drive economically. Make sure your savings, pension pot or investments are not being used to support fossil fuel extraction. Government should put a price on carbon and integrate this into the tax system.
  • Think carefully about who you vote for. It is in everybody’s interest (even the rich) to live in a content, stable society so support a party strong on social justice. If the poor become less poor, they buy more and so support business and pay tax.
  • Play a part in your local community. Shop locally and buy local produce. Seek ways to make your locality more self reliant and sustainable. Big isn’t always best and many decisions are best made at a local level rather than nationally.
  • Stay informed and abreast of new technologies. Don’t blindly accept them; they all have pros and cons. Understand what they mean for you and us and use them accordingly.

So there ARE ways of keeping our economics ecosystem healthy and keeping the three horsemen of the apocalypse at bay. If our existing politicians won’t or can’t put these ideas effectively into place, quickly enough, it is down to us. If we each do a little bit and tell others about it, we can do it. The power of social media is proven. There are a billion of us on Facebook already. Far more have phones. Some of the 7bn are little children, others are old or poor. So maybe 2 bn need to make changes. Get changing what YOU do, so you can lead by example.  Convince 2 or 3 others, get it trending and soon most of the economic actors worldwide will be doing things differently… and the ecosystem will be evolving nicely.

The Flailing, Failing Radical Right

Better Nature: books and commentary by Geoff Davies

The current disarray of the Abbott Government may mark the end of a decades-long experiment in radical social engineering. The experiment has yielded deepening social divisions, an antiquated, colonial-style economy and little capacity to deal with the dramatic challenges of the near future.

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4 things that threaten life on Earth!

By Jon Crooks


Today I’m embarking on a journey.

I’ve been writing and blogging occasionally for a while now, but not in any kind of consistent or focused way. Since the General Election, I’ve become embroiled in politics: trying to help the Greens make progress in the lead up to the election and above all else trying to convince people that the Tories would cause more damage if elected. I didn’t envisage the Tories winning with an overall majority; I don’t think anyone did. And as expected, they’ve had a hugely damaging impact already – in just their first three months we’ve had the socially damaging Welfare Bill and a catastrophic assault on the environment in which David Cameron’s Government has taken aim at anything green and shot to kill.

I now find myself getting caught up in Corbynmania. It’s really exciting stuff. It does show that there has been a latent movement in this country just waiting for something to latch onto; just like what we’ve seen happening in Greece and Spain. I’m not saying I agree with everything Corbyn says, but most of it makes sense and shouldn’t be considered radical or extreme. The fact that it is, just shows how far to the right we have shifted. As reported in The Guardian today, his opposition to austerity is actually mainstream economics, even backed by the conservative IMF.

I’ve been dabbling in economics myself. Trying to get my head around money creation as debt and whether economic growth is necessary or even desirable. More to come from me on that subject.

The thing is though, I don’t want to lose sight of what’s really important. Not that politics, economics and social affairs aren’t important, they are. But politics and economics are (or at least should be) just a means to an end. Our global economy and elected representatives should be there to serve our best interests. The question is how do we determine what those interests are? As global citizens, do we want to continue to make the rich richer at the expense of the majority of the population and the limited resources of the planet or do we want a new more stable and just global economy that puts people and planet before profits? What then is our starting point?

Many of us know that we need to move to a fairer, more sustainable economic model, but in order to do that we first need a deep understanding of what are the biggest global challenges we face, so that we can keep them in mind and not fall into short-term thinking when it comes to shaping our future. This is what I want to cover off in my blog over the coming weeks and months. Here, I’m going to set the scene by looking at the 4 biggest global issues we face, based on recent scientific research, just in very broad terms for now.

In future blogs I’ll explore each of the following 4 issues in more detail. From there I hope to continue my journey by discussing different solutions to these issues. I hope you will find it useful and informative, but more than anything, I hope it will spur you into action.

I’m taking some time out of my career to spend one day a week writing. I’m no genius, I’m not an economist or a politician. I’m not a scholar or a scientist, but I hope that by bringing ideas together and sharing them, I will have a positive impact. So here goes…

The 4 things that threaten us:

Scientists are now repeatedly saying that whilst over the last 10,000 years, human civilization has advanced significantly, it is changes seen over just the last 60 years in particular that have led to a situation in which humans are now eating away at our own life support systems at an unprecedented rate.

Our recent impact is now so significant, that we are thought by many to be entering a new age, the Anthropocene, in which many geologically significant conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activities.

Two major studies by an international team of researchers, published in Science and Anthropocene Review earlier this year, pinpointed the key factors that ensure a habitable planet for humans, with stark results. They found that the following 4 (out of a total of 9) worldwide processes have already exceeded safe levels. These processes are referred to as Planetary Boundaries and the 4 critical ones are:

Climate change

Loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and extinctions)

Land system change

Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans

All of these changes are shifting Earth into a “new state” that is becoming less hospitable to human life and these changes are down to human activity, not natural variability. Our economic systems have gone into overdrive and as a result there has been a massive increase in resource use and pollution on a global scale.

Climate Change

Since 1950, urban populations have increased seven-fold and primary energy use has soared by a factor of five. Carbon dioxide levels have now breached 400 parts per million for the first time in history.

Will Seffen, lead author on the two studies into Planetary Boundaries, believes we’ve reached a point at which the loss of summer polar sea-ice is almost certainly irreversible.

“This is one example of a well-defined threshold above which rapid physical feedback mechanisms can drive the Earth system into a much warmer state with sea levels metres higher than present.”

He also suggests that the weakening or reversal of carbon sinks (a forest, ocean, or other natural environment viewed in terms of its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere), such as the on-going destruction of the world’s rain forests, is another potential tipping point, where feedbacks accelerate Earth’s warming and this intensifies the climate impacts.

“A major question is how long we can remain over this boundary before large, irreversible changes become unavoidable.”   

The fact that this question remains unanswered puts into doubt the internationally agreed 2 Celcius so-called “safe limit” of global warming – something that to my consternation, is increasingly referred to as a “target“, rather than an outer limit.

The reality is there is no safe limit; we’re dicing with death. 

Loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and extinctions)

This is the second of the 4 critical planetary boundaries; another problem which is spiraling out of control, with species now becoming extinct at a rate more than 100 times faster than the previous norm.

The study of Planetary Boundaries concludes that changes to ecosystems due to human activities have been…

“… more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history, increasing the risks of abrupt and irreversible changes. The main drivers of change are the demand for food, water, and natural resources, causing severe biodiversity loss and leading to changes in ecosystem services.”

A study last year by scientists at WWF and the Zoological Society of London found that the number of wild animals on Earth has halved in the past 40 years.

“Creatures across land, rivers and the seas are being decimated as humans kill them for food in unsustainable numbers, while polluting or destroying their habitats.” – , head of environment at the Guardian

We are destroying natural habitats at an alarming rate, and this ecosystem damage, alongside the illegal wildlife trade, is leading to extinctions which will ultimately destroy the integrity our living global ecosystem (what scientists refer to as the biosphere). Steffen believes that direct human influence upon the land is contributing to a loss of pollination and a disruption of nutrients and fresh water.

We are clearing land, we are degrading land, we introduce feral animals and take the top predators out, we change the marine ecosystem by overfishing – it’s a death by a thousand cuts”

Land system change

Land is converted to human use all over the planet. Forests, grasslands, wetlands and other vegetation types have been converted to agricultural land. This land-use change is one driving force behind the serious reductions in biodiversity, and it has impacts on water flows and on the absorption of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, showing how interconnected these processes are. The study of Planetary Boundaries tells us:

“While each incident of land cover change occurs on a local scale, the aggregated impacts can have consequences for Earth system processes on a global scale…. Forests play a particularly important role in controlling the linked dynamics of land use and climate.”

Land clearing is now concentrated in tropical areas, such as Indonesia and the Amazon, with the practice reversed in parts of Europe. But the overall picture is one of deterioration at a rapid rate.

That direct impact upon the land is the most important factor right now, even more than climate change.” – Will Steffen

Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans

This final process refers to the high level of phosphorus and nitrogen flowing into the oceans due to fertilizer use. This is now eight times higher than in 1950. 

Much of the nitrogen in fertilizers is emitted to the atmosphere in various forms rather than taken up by crops. Then, when it rains, it pollutes waterways and coastal zones and accumulates in our oceans. The amount of nitrogen entering the oceans has quadrupled.

“A significant fraction of the applied nitrogen and phosphorus makes its way to the sea, and can push marine and aquatic systems across ecological thresholds of their own. One regional-scale example of this effect is the decline in the shrimp catch in the Gulf of Mexico’s ‘dead zone’ caused by fertilizer transported in rivers from the US Midwest.” – Planetary Bounderies, Stockholme Resilience Centre

Do we need a more convincing argument for going organic?

Will any of these 4 critical processes lead to the extinction of the human race?

Unless we implement radical change relatively soon, then in time, yes. Our economic system is fundamentally flawed, as it ignores these critically important life support systems. As Will Steffan puts it:

“History has shown that civilizations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change. That’s where we are today.”

The way I see it, we are trying to limit the damage we cause because of our intransigence. As we get closer to yet another climate meeting/ in Paris at the end of the year, countries are submitting their proposals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but as active players in a global market, it is not in their interests to commit to anything far-reaching, for fear that it will make them noncompetitive. Is this surprising? Do we really expect our politicians to introduce the necessary reforms?

What can we do ourselves as ‘active citizens’?

I intend to find out. I hope you’ll join me…

If you would like to join me on this journey, follow me on Twitter @TheBeardyGuy and subscribe to my blog.