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Right relationship: building a whole earth economy

Alexia Eastwood
02 April 2009

The priority given to short term growth in mainstream economics undermines the Earth's ability to maintain its ecological balance and neglects the principle of fairness in the distribution of resources, according to the new book ‘Right Relationship'. A review by Alexia Eastwood.

A proposal for a Whole Earth Economy is outlined in a new book from Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver, "Right Relationship", which advocates the need for fundamental change in our economy toward an ethic of sharing and cooperation on a global scale. The heart of the problem is identified as lying at the "intersection of economics and ecology", requiring a reframing of the basic tenets of neoclassical economics - endless growth and limitless potential wealth - in the creation of a new economic model.

‘Right Relationship', a concept derived from Quaker philosophy, is used here as a guide to an ethical approach to the economy that is of universal relevance. The concept draws on basic moral principles that have traditionally informed societies and communities the world over as a basis to reorientate the relationship between human activity, the planet, and societal needs.  Brown and Garver present a convincing case outlining both the need for such a Whole Earth Economy, as well as providing a coherent framework for how such an economy might function.

The Quakers have a history of innovation and leadership in social and environmental justice issues dating back to the antislavery movement. Inspiration for this latest pioneering project from the Quaker Institute for the Future research unit comes from earlier Quaker thinkers such as Kenneth Boulding and John Woolman. Boulding, who gained much acclaim for popularising the idea of ‘Spaceship Earth', is well known as one of the first social scientists to apply a holistic ecological approach in thinking about progressive social policy and the future of humanity.

The concept of ‘Spaceship Earth' recognises that all human activity takes place within a closed system, exposing the fundamental error of classical economic thought that presupposes the possibility of unlimited growth and wealth. Whilst production and consumption in the human economy can expand, the planet's environmental system that supports such an economy remains fixed, finite and closed.

As the authors illustrate, the global economy today is extracting resources and generating waste at an unsustainable rate that undermines the earth's ability to maintain its ecological balance.  By promoting the pursuit of financial wealth above all other values, the current economy acts in opposition to the ethical traditions of humanity and to the detriment of both social well-being and ecological sustainability.

Right relationship is a way to unify economics and ecology, providing a blueprint for the functioning of social and economic life in harmony with the scientific reality of the biosphere. Acknowledging the interdependence of all life systems on the planet, Brown and Garver assert that the well-being of humanity is dependent on the welfare of the ecosystems that support the earth.  As such, right relationship offers a route to building a sustainable relationship with the natural world by following the fundamental principle that "a thing is right when it tends to preserve and enhance the integrity, resilience and beauty of the whole commonwealth of life."

Building a Whole Earth Economy

From a practical appraisal of the evolution of scientific thought, the authors identify a rising trend in science toward understanding life on the planet in terms of relationships and interconnections rather than in reductionist terms of isolated functions. This branch of scientific thought is posited as constituting a building block for the framework of a new Whole Earth Economy that will prioritise the wellbeing of the 'whole commonwealth of life'. From this perspective, science can inform economics with ecological reality and challenge the principle of unlimited growth in a finite system.

The authors pose five questions to bring the economy into perspective and assess the requirements for an economy based on right relationship with the commonwealth of life: What is the economy for? How does it work? How big is too big? What's fair? And how can it best be governed?

Comparing most governments' dedication to the current form of laissez-faire capitalism to a kind of religious faith, the authors maintain that there is an alternative to blind adherence to the market. The economy must be overhauled to fulfil its original purpose of serving society, focusing on improving human welfare and quality of life rather than subordinating the needs of people to the pursuit of monetary wealth. It is an essential starting point, say Brown and Garver, that the planet should not be seen as a subset of the human economy, but rather the economy must be understood as a subsidiary of the earth.  Principles of respect and reciprocity would ensure that a new Whole Earth Economy "takes no more than it needs and uses no more than it must."

The fundamental misconceptions that inform our current system, say the authors, include mistaking a measure of wealth for wealth itself.  To bring economic priorities in line with social life we would do better to define wealth as "the ability to maintain life itself".  In a Whole Earth Economy, one of the goals of economic activity would be to eliminate waste - the very concept of which is inherently flawed in the context of a closed system, say the authors.  Healthy ecosystems reuse and recycle all products of the life cycle, and the human economy must adopt this principle to function efficiently and ecologically as a subset of life on this planet.

In rejecting an economic system that has no notion of ‘enough', new ways of measuring social and environmental wellbeing are called for. The size of the economy should be judged according to right relationship, argue the authors, respecting the ecological limits of the planet and adjusting lifestyle and consumption patterns according to such factors as population, technology and ethics.

Sharing the benefits and burdens

The priority given to short term growth in mainstream economics has created unprecedented levels of inequality that Brown and Garver show to be socially and environmentally unviable as well as immoral.  In contrast, right relationship requires a principle of fairness in the distribution of both the "benefits and burdens" of the economy. In this vision, a more equal share of the earth's resources would provide all of the world's people with their basic needs, whilst preserving a spirit of healthy economic competition. 

The international commitment to human rights is noted as a progressive moral force, but a flawed one in that it promotes American ideas of liberty and individuality that encourage American levels of unsustainable consumption. A rethinking of human rights and distributive justice is called for on the basis of mutual respect and ecological limits.

The final chapter of Right Relationship is devoted to the need for effective global governance in order to protect and manage the global commons. Four key institutions are proposed: a Global Reserve to act as an ecological research centre; a Global Federation to govern the operation of a Whole Earth Economy; ‘Trusteeships of the Earth's Commons' to use the research of the Global Reserve to develop measures for sound ecological management of the economy; and a Global Court to prevent the abuse of power.

These global governance institutions would operate on the basis of right relationship where government is "a representation of collective wisdom, spirit and discipline" in which every citizen of the world has a duty to participate. Acknowledging that the creation of institutions such as these is a long term challenge, the authors maintain that the forms proposed here should act as "functional ideals" to facilitate global discussion and enable people to envision how global governance could function

Right Relationship ends by issuing a ‘Call to Action' on the part of every individual to work toward comprehensive change in order to avert environmental catastrophe and pass on ‘Spaceship Earth' intact to future generations. This prophetic book provides a blueprint for the future of humanity in a sound relationship with the environment, as well as inspiring action at every level to achieve a sustainable future for all life on the planet.

Without diminishing the urgency of the situation, the authors offer a positive vision of how we can affect change through both individual actions and choices, and more crucially through a mass epiphany of consciousness and a concerted international effort. As the authors rightly point out, change at the governance level tends to come as a result of shifts in public opinion, and a large scale change of values is now expedient to achieve progressive policy change.

Further resources: 

Don’t Repair the Economy, Change It - by Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver