An economic system that serves everyone and the planet is necessary for our survival. Here are some guiding principles to get us there.
(Commentary originally published by YES! Magazine, July 2, 2019. It is excerpted from a longer working paper “A 21st Century Economics for the People of a Living Earth” written as input to various discussions mentioned in this article.)
We’re running out of time. There’s spreading awareness of the institutional failure that is driving humans toward self-extinction, and related calls for a deep transformation of our economy. This is happening in every quarter, from college campuses to the Vatican to the U.S. presidential debates. Everywhere we hear calls for an economy that serves the well-being of people and Earth.
Pope Francis has spoken of the social and environmental failures of an economy devoted to the idolatry of money. Workers and their unions are joining in with the wrenching observation that, “There are no good jobs on a dead planet.”
There is a related rising awareness of the need for a serious update to how we study and think about economics and prepare our future leaders. With few exceptions, economics, as it’s taught in universities, relies on the same badly flawed theories and ethical principles that bear major responsibility for the unfolding crisis. It values life only for its market price; uses GDP growth as the defining measure of economic performance; assures students that maximizing personal financial return benefits society; recommends policies that prioritize corporate profits over human and planetary well-being; and ignores the natural limits of a finite planet.
Here are eight guiding principles for a reformed economic theory to guide our path to a new economy for the 21st century.
Principle 1: Evaluate the economy’s performance by indicators of the well-being of people and planet; not the growth of GDP.
Growing GDP serves well if our goal is only to increase the financial assets of the rich so they can claim an ever-growing share of the remaining real wealth of a dying Earth. If our priority is to meet the essential needs for food, water, shelter, and other basics for all the world’s people, then we must measure for those results so that we can get the outcomes we really want.
Principle 2: Seek only that which benefits life; not that which harms life.
We should seek to eliminate war, financial speculation, consumption of harmful or unnecessary products, and industrial agriculture that pollutes the soil, air, and water and produces food of questionable nutritional value. We can eliminate most driving by designing infrastructure to support people living close to where they work, shop, and play. We can eliminate most global movement of people and goods by keeping production and consumption local, using recycled materials, and substituting electronic communication for global business travel.
The labor and resources thus freed up can be redirected to raising and educating our children, caring for the elderly, restoring the health and vitality of Earth’s regenerative systems, rebuilding the social infrastructure of community, and rebuilding physical infrastructure in ways that reduce dependence on fossil fuels and simultaneously strengthen our beneficial connections with one another and nature.
Principle 3: Honor and reward all who provide beneficial labor, including nature; not those who exploit it to get rich.
Life depends on the labor of nature and people. Too often, the current economic system rewards those claiming ownership rather than those performing useful labor. Instead we should follow the model set by traditional societies, in which we earn our share in the surplus of the commons through our labor in service of it. Much of the current economy’s dysfunction can be overcome by eliminating the division of society between owners and workers—a problem corrected through worker ownership combined with an ethical frame that recognizes our well-being depends on much more than just financial return.
Principle 4: Create society’s money supply through a transparent public process to advance the common good; not through proprietary processes that grow the profits of for-profit banks.
In a modern society, those who control the creation and allocation of money control the lives of everyone. It defies reason to assume that society benefits from giving this power to global for-profit banks dedicated to maximizing profits for the already richest among us. The system of money creation and allocation must be public, transparent, and accountable to the people. It must reside in democratic governments and be administered by public banks supplemented by individual community-owned, cooperative banks whose lending supports local home and business ownership.
Principle 5: Educate for a lifetime of learning in service to life-seeking communities; not for service to for-profit corporations.
Most university economics courses currently promote societal psychopathology as a human ideal and give legitimacy to institutions that serve only to make money, without regard for the common good. We must prepare youth for future leadership that builds on a moral foundation that recognizes our responsibility for one another and Earth, favors cooperation over competition, and prioritizes life over money and community well-being over corporate profits.
No one knows how to get where we now must go, and education cannot provide us with answers we do not have. Education can, however, prepare us to be lifelong learners, skilled in asking the right questions and in working together to find and share answers.
Principle 6: Create and apply technology only to serve life; not to displace or destroy it.
Technology must be life’s servant. Deciding how to apply technology based solely on what will produce the greatest short-term financial return is madness. Humans have the right and the means to assure that technology is used only to serve humanity as a whole, such as by eliminating destructive environmental impacts, restoring the regenerative capacity of Earth systems, facilitating global understanding, and advancing social justice, cooperation, and learning.
Principle 7: Organize as cooperative, inclusive, self-reliant, regenerative communities that share knowledge and technology to serve life; not as incorporated pools of money competing to grow by exploiting life.
We can meet our needs through constant cyclical flows of resources. That was our standard way of living until less than 100 years ago. We can do it again. Urban and rural dwellers can rediscover their interdependence as cities source food, timber, fiber, pulp, and recreational opportunities from nearby rural areas and rural areas regenerate their soils with biowastes from nearby urban areas and enjoy the benefits of urban culture. Suburbs can convert to urban or rural habitats.
Principle 8: Seek a mutually beneficial population balance between humans and Earth’s other species; not the dominance of humans over all others.
The health of any natural ecosystem depends on its ability to balance the populations of its varied species. This means maintaining free access to reproductive health care options and removing barriers to women in education and the workplace. Only starting from this point can we both maintain a free society and manage our population size.
The basic frame of 21st century economics contrasts sharply with that of the 20th century economics it must now displace. The new frame is far more complex and nuanced. Yet most people can readily grasp it because it is logical, consistent with foundational ethical principles, and reflects the reality that most people are kind, honest, find pleasure in helping others, and recognize that we all depend on the health of our Mother Earth.