Forum on Economic Reform
In recent decades the alliance of neoclassical economics and neoliberalism has hijacked the term “economic reform”. By presenting political choices as market necessities, they have subverted public debate about what economic policy changes are possible and are or are not desirable. This venue promotes discussion of economic reform that is not limited to the one ideological point of view.
Tackling greed while recognizing ecological limits:
A reply to Edney
Tom Green (Rainforest Solutions Project, Canada)
© Copyright: Tom Green 2005
Julian Edney’s essay on “Greed (Part 1)” (post-autistic economisc review, issue no. 31) raises critically important moral issues around accumulation, consumption and deprivation, and the relationship between greed and poverty. Edney sets out some of the ways in which economic theory has justified greed, a task that post-autistic economics theorists should vigourously contribute to. I agree with Edney that greed, and the ways in which economics has given greed a cloak of acceptability, represent a significant impediment to a more just economy and a more humane society, and indeed lead us to an array of social problems and human tragedies. I agree with Edney that we need to explain and challenge the simultaneous occurrence of life-threatening scarcity and unimaginable wealth. Unfortunately, in arguing against greed, Edney simultaneously attacks a straw man version of the ecological scarcity argument. He thereby seeks to undermine one of the most compelling practical and moral arguments against greed and ends up promoting the very type of injustices that he decries.
In the section of his essay entitled “Distraction,” Edney not only denies that environmental degradation and exploitation is an issue that leads to human suffering, he argues that it is an already outdated rhetoric, a distraction from the real issue of poverty being what people do to people, and that predictions of scarcity have not been borne out. Edney cites two sources to support this position: an article arguing that people in rich countries do not consume too much, published in the Atlantic Monthly by Mark Sagoff, a philosopher; and the controversial writings of Bjorn Lomborg, a political scientist and professor of statistics best known as the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and a key force behind the Copenhagen Consensus.1
Edney’s sources represent a curious choice for someone tackling the issue of greed, as both these authors take positions which weaken arguments for constraints on greed. As a philosopher, Sagoff is hardly the most qualified individual to assess our ecological predicament. Of the seemingly impressive 128 footnotes in Sagoff’s article, at best 5 can be considered to be published in the peer-reviewed natural science literature. This same article was refuted a few months later by five natural scientists, with a long list of peer-reviewed publications to their credit, in that same magazine.2 Lomborg’s assessment of our ecological predicament is simply not credible. The Skeptical Environmentalist was the subject of a detailed rebuttal in the January 2002 edition of Scientific American. “Misleading Math about the Earth: Science defends itself against The Skeptical Environmentalist.” Lomborg’s pet project, the Copenhagen Consensus, involved a panel of respected mainstream economists in choosing projects on the basis of their economic efficiency to best address global problems. The outcome of this project was to rate liberalizing trade as a very good project (the further liberalization of trade would exacerbate the inequities condemned by Edney3), while improving infant and child nutrition, reducing the prevalence of low birth weight, and scaling up basic health services (all projects that would be consistent with decreasing inequities, improving health, and redressing some minimal aspects of life-threatening scarcity decried by Edney) were all rated as merely fair projects.
Rather than relying on authors who have little, if any, qualification to pronounce on our ecological predicament, Edney could have turned to scientifically credible sources. For instance, the United Nation’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which involved over 1360 experts around the world, was released earlier this year. Its objective was to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and to look at actions required to ensure that natural systems would continue to contribute to human well-being. A number of its conclusions, as summarized in the Statement of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Board, Living Beyond Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Well-being, are particularly relevant to Edney’s discussion of greed:
· “At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning. Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”
· “The loss of services derived from ecosystems is a significant barrier to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty, hunger, and disease.”
· “In many cases, it is the poor who suffer the loss of services caused directly by the pressure put on natural systems to bring benefits to other communities, often in different parts of the world.”
· “The negative impacts of climate change will fall disproportionately on the poorest parts of the world...”4
It seems that Edney believes that when we act to address threats to the continued viability of ecosystems upon which humanity depends, that we will set aside concern for issues of poverty, or that we will fail to see that greed and poverty are linked. The opposite is true. Mainstream economists have fought vigourously against the recognition of ecological limits, and have been staunch promoters of the concept that the scale of the economy can keep growing for ever. And for good reason. If the poor only receive crumbs from society’s pie, and the pie is not growing, the only way to improve the lot of the disadvantaged is through redistribution. If we can hold forth the illusion that the pie can grow infinitely, then society is off the hook for inequity since with time the poor person’s crumb will grow into a satisfying forkful and eventually a modest slice of pie.5 The lack of interest on issues of distribution amongst neoclassical economists, and their simultaneous defence of growth once again shows Edney to be aligning himself with those who would not support him in his arguments against greed.
Ecological economists have promoted the concept of ecological footprint analysis to make clear the linkages between consumption and ecological impact, and how one person’s material standard of living affects prospects for people in other places or in the future.6 The ecological footprint of the average person in North America is equivalent to that of a couple of dozen people in most poor southern countries; the footprint of the millionaires with whom Edney opens his essay could easily approach that of an entire village in the South. Such analysis clearly shows that the well-off appropriate more than their fair share of the Earth’s resources and ecological services, and that the typical lifestyles of the well-off (or greedy) in rich countries would require several more Earths were all of the world’s population to live at their standard of living. It begs the question, “Why should greedy individuals be allowed to impose such a burden on the Earth, and reduce the opportunities for other people now and in the future?”
In responding to Sagoff’s Atlantic Monthly article, Ehrlich and fellow natural scientists clearly take a moral position against greed and for a more just economy: “For decades in the rich nations increased consumption has not been correlated with increased satisfaction, and perpetuating Third World poverty is a luxury that the prosperous can no longer afford.” Amongst other measures they call for, “reduced consumption among today's superconsumers” in order to close “…the rich-poor gap without an ecological collapse… humanity could create a sustainable global society with a higher quality of life for everyone.”
In the future one would hope that Edney would use to advantage rather than seek to skewer with broken spears one of the most potent arguments against unfettered greed. The notion that we are approaching ecological limits is entirely compatible with the idea that much scarcity and human deprivation is the result of an inequitable economic system. Nor is it accurate to blame the poor multitudes for our ecological predicament, or to use scarcity as an argument against improving the living standards of the poor. Edney’s characterization of the scarcity argument, “we have poverty and scarcity because our Earth has limits…” is a caricature of a complex issue. Most researchers who raise the issue of ecological limits raise the issue of equity and point to the need to impose rules to ensure market economies lead to more equitable and sustainable outcomes. One would hope that future contributions to the post-autistic economic review would not follow the autism of mainstream economics with regards to the natural environment. In 2005, the world is faced with a dizzying and still accelerating rate of biodiversity loss, the wide-scale contamination of water bodies and groundwater, the already observable harmful effects of excessive CO2 in the atmosphere, the tragic loss of fish biomass in the ocean, an alarming rate of soil loss, degraded forests and heavily fragmented natural habitat. All these problems harm poor people somewhere in the world, while the very well off are able, for the time being, to insulate themselves from such problems. The time for arguments within the economic literature about the existence of limits is long past. Limits exist, and limits imply that greed is unconscionable.
1. See http://www.copenhagenconsensus.com/ (accessed June 1, 2005).
2. Paul R. Ehrlich, Gretchen C. Daily, Scott C. Daily, Norman Myers, and James Salzman, 1997. “No Middle Way on the Environment,” Atlantic Monthly, December 1997.
3. See for instance: Harris, Jonathan, 2001. “Macroeconomic Policy And Sustainability” Global Development And Environment Institute Working Paper No. 01-09, Tufts University. Available at: ase.tufts.edu/gdae/publications/ working_papers/macroandsust.pdf. (accessed June 1, 2005).
4. Available at: http://www.maweb.org//en/Products.BoardStatement.aspx (accessed June 1, 2005).
5. Herman E. Daly, “The Illth of Nations and the Fecklessness of Policy: An Ecological Economist’s Perspective”, post-autistic economics review, issue no. 22, 24 November 2003, article 1,
6. Wackernagel, M. and Silverstein, J. 2000: "Big things first: focusing on the scale imperative with the ecological footprint." Ecological Economics 32: 391-394.
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