We are subject to a constant barrage of war analogies, particularly in the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic, and ongoing in relation to climate change. We must ‘fight the pandemic’ and ‘fight climate change’. Associated sentiments are that we must ‘save the economy’ and ‘save the planet’. Language is powerful and sways our thoughts, influencing our actions (there are many times in my life I hark back to George Orwell’s 1984 and his concepts of language controlling thought). War language seems appropriate in that it will spur us to action, but is it really leading us to any desired state?
Let’s start with some definitions. Dull as definitions can be, it is very difficult to approach big issues without some common understanding of the concepts being considered.
Economy: the large set of inter-related production and consumption activities that aid in determining how resources are allocated.
The production and consumption of goods and services are used to fulfill the needs of those living and operating within an economy, which is also referred to as an economic system. ‘Economy’ is derived from the Greek word ‘Oikonomia’, which meant ‘household management’. The concept has expanded considerably with time! Adam Smith, the so-called ‘father of economics’, is considered to have laid down the framework of modern economics in the “Wealth of Nations” (1776). He defined economics as the ‘Science of Wealth’, investigating how wealth is created and used. I could go into a diatribe here regarding the lack of true science in economics, but I will forbear.
In the 1880s, Alfred Marshall attempted to write a complete treatise of all aspects of economic thought. He was beaten by the scale of his subject, but completed the first volume in which he suggested that “Economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life”. Smith, Marshall and other early economists referred to the economy as managing ‘scarce’ resources in order to meet the needs of humans, where scarcity refers to available resources being insufficient to meet unlimited human desires. However, there is little evidence that their notion of scarcity was really about running out of a resource in its entirety, the notion was more around its immediate availability.
In contrast, today we are faced with the actual end of specific planetary resources, including the ability of the atmosphere to absorb carbon dioxide. As a result Kate Raworth, of Oxford University, has developed the concept of ‘Doughnut Economics‘ where the goal is to meet the needs of humans within the means of the planet. Her work has drawn heavily on ecological economics as espoused by Herman Daly, whose work in economics brings together key elements of ethics, quality of life, environment and community.
Planet: a large object that orbits a star. In the case of humans ‘our’ planet is the Earth. We certainly act like it belongs to us and no other form of life!
Humanity: human beings collectively; the quality of being humane. Humaneness, is compassion for others and not only for humans.
So, to return to ‘saving the economy’ and ‘saving the planet’. There is clearly no need to ‘save the economy’ because the economy will keep right on trucking. We might end up with an economy whose actions or effects we don’t like, but the activities of human production and consumption will continue on while humans remain on the planet. What then are we actually wishing to save? Perhaps we are wishing to save a previous state of the economy? We are wishing to save the previous or current scale of production and consumption, because that is what we have become accustomed to…hold that thought.
As far as ‘saving the planet’ goes, the planet will also truck on until the sun runs out of fuel. The truly scarce resource, from the point of view of the planet, is energy. The sun provides energy to our planet through light, generated by hydrogen fusion. When the sun runs out of hydrogen, it will turn into a much cooler ‘red giant’, and life on earth will draw to a close. From a human point of view, sun-derived energy isn’t too much of an issue as the sun is middle aged. Our galaxy formed around 4.5 billion years ago and the sun is estimated to have a similar time to run. I doubt humans are going to be around for another 5 billion years, which means we don’t have to worry about the scarcity of the sun’s hydrogen. While the sun continues to deliver energy, our planet will continue to produce new webs of life; humans are irrelevant to the general existence of life (except for our propensity to temporarily reduce its diversity).
To me it seems like our rhetoric really boils down to our wishing to ‘save humanity’. We don’t need to save economies or the planet, but we do need to maintain the planet in a state in which we humans collectively can continue to exist. At the same time, we also need to save our quality of being human – existing as a human in a ‘Mad Max’ world (or many other of the worlds as depicted by dystopian fiction) is not a desirable goal.
How does one ‘save humanity’, as in the quality of being humane? Surely, the first step is putting humanity in the upper echelon of our goals? Realising this made me also realise why, for all its faults, I like the approach of our current New Zealand government. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic alerts, part of our government’s message has been to ‘be kind’, echoed by numerous politicians and civil servants. Our prime minister’s immediate response to the Christchurch mosque shooting was not anger, but compassion. She was more interested in demonstrably relating to those who had lost family and friends to improve the overall societal fabric, than invoking a ‘War on Terror’ to theoretically stamp out potential individual dropped threads.
Should the role of government be in demonstrating and advocating humanity? Actually, I can think of nothing more important in our current world. When I looked for articles regarding the role of government, the majority focused on the role of government in relation to the economy. But without a lodestar directing the goals of the economy, economic intervention can be random, or destructive. The lodestar followed since Adam Smith has been creation of wealth. Our neoclassical economy, with growth at its heart, has been our resultant legacy. We have benefited from the many gains related to that wealth, but now find ourselves teetering at the edge of a precipice where the ‘scarce resources’ have become truly scarce, and continued expansion of wealth for all is no longer a possibility. Saving the scale of the current economy is most likely not possible in the medium term, but we are too often told such growth is essential, with all other human endeavours apparently being secondary to the economy’s demands.
‘Humanity’ is the core of what we value in humans; surely ‘humanity’ should be at the core of our actions and systems, with the economy being the primary system used to manage ourselves and our planet, but being the means, not the end. Our economy must be our servant, not our leader, it must deliver to our aspirations, not be our purpose. Our government must be our representatives, our leaders and our servants. We need them to represent our own humanity, reflecting it back. We need them to provide the example of humanity as our shared aspirational goal. And we need them to act effectively to promote being humane, including and particularly through economic interventions.
‘We need to save our economy’. ‘We need to save our planet’. ‘We need to save humanity’. It’s fighting talk, which fight can we win?