Environmental Economics Archive

Community Resilience Grows With Positive Feedback

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

This is the third and final article in our series on community resilience and building a sustainable local economy. The first and second articles are recommended background reading. All three articles are modified versions of originals that appeared in my syndicated newspaper column “Your Ecological House.”

~PSW

Is your community struggling to provide enough jobs and services to maintain a prosperous, healthy lifestyle for its citizens? Is the situation threatening to get worse as globalization continues to move jobs overseas and environmental constraints push the price of basic goods higher and higher?

How can your community rebuild its prosperity and ensure a sustainable future — create a resilient response to 21st-century environmental and economic challenges?

One approach would be to continue to invest in “creative destruction” — an economic paradigm that depends on continuously replacing existing products and services with new ones. Thus, for example, eight-millimeter home movies are replaced by video tapes which in turn are replaced by CDs and, ultimately, memory chips. As this process continues, the companies that produced the original goods or services are destroyed, or at least diminished so that most or all of their labor force is displaced, devastating local economies.

While some see this as a form of progress — technology is improved and the prosperity of society as a whole can, but by no means is assured to increase increase over time — it comes at costs that are increasingly unacceptable, especially for the local communities that must suffer the hardships of the destructive side of the creative/destructive coin. Technology-based businesses come and go — mostly go — in today’s global economy.

Thus attempting to do business as usual by attracting companies from outside one’s community with incentives such as creating business parks and offering tax breaks is a bad long-term strategy for prosperity. And as globalization is consolidated, resources become scarcer, and computers move investment capital at lightning speed, it’s an increasingly bad short-term strategy as well.

Community Resilience and Feedback Loops

Alternatively, communities can look to themselves and their local and regional economies and environment to build community resilience and long-term prosperity that is not dependent on the boom-and-bust creative-destruction cycle. To do so, they must identify feedback loops and understand the types of feedback they can expect from various policies and investments.

Accelerating, or “positive” feedback is a lever which makes certain societal and economic trends grow exponentially while others, by being deprived of economic or cultural oxygen, as it were, decelerate. For example, educating women in poor countries can break or diminish the cycle of poverty because educated women tend to have fewer children. Fewer children means reduced poverty and greater opportunity for the remaining children to become educated, which means even fewer children and, ultimately, less poverty.

This is an accelerating feedback loop based on positive signals — signals that encourage more of the same behavior. It is begun by deleveraging the destructive feedback loop of overpopulation which leads to poverty, which in turn leads to increased population — a trend which would now decelerate.

Communities in wealthier, developed nations can observe trends such as automation, globalization and the increasing scarcity and rising price of basic resources to pick the feedback levers they want to “pull” in order to build community resilience and sustainable development into their local economies. Does it make sense, for example, for communities to continue to encourage investment in suburban development instead of in compact, less car-dependent cities?

Community Resilience and Compact Cities

Continued suburbanization results in increased automobile dependence, which in turn means building more automobile infrastructure — roads and massive parking lots paved with asphalt (a petroleum product), parking structures and so on — which in turn encourages increased automobile use and more sprawl development. Excessive automobile dependence means people pay more to get to work, create more pollution and frequently have worse health.

Compact city design, which can include pedestrian-only zones in downtown shopping areas, encourages greater diversity of business ownership (more small business outlets rather than fewer businesses in malls ) — which in turn increases local employment, and strengthens the local economy — which in turn encourages even greater diversity of ownership and the creation of even more small businesses, reducing the harmful effects to the community if some businesses fail.

Compact cities also encourage public transportation development (creating jobs), and bicycle use and walking which reduce transportation and health-care costs, allowing for more investment in beneficial community functions — while gradually reducing dependence on the external automotive economy while … you get the idea: feedback.

Finding the right feedback levers is the first step in creating community resilience and sustainable prosperity at our ecological house.

Community Resilience, Diversity and Feedback Loops

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

This is the second in a series of three articles on community resilience and building a sustainable economy (first article, third article). It is a modified version of an article originally appearing in my syndicated newspaper column “Your Ecological House.”

~PSW

What can communities and local governments do to help ensure the well-being of their citizens as we face an uncertain future?

Many communities are discussing “community resilience strategies,” policies and programs that can help them bounce back from “perturbations” (problems) caused by widely anticipated global environmental and economic stress. And it’s a good bet that those communities that actually develop and invest in community resilience strategies will greatly increase their chances of surviving or even prospering in an era of dwindling resources, unpredictable economic fluctuations and rapid climate change.

Community resilience planning (as preparation for environmental and economic emergencies, no ordinary “natural disasters) is a fairly new concept being developed by environmental/economic think tanks such as the Post Carbon Institute (www.postcarbon.org). While the think tanks focus on solutions for human communities and economies — investing in sustainable local businesses, developing community energy systems and so on —  their work is rooted in a decades-old branch of ecology that studies resilience in ecosystems.

In the first article in this series, I discussed how learning about the resilience of natural ecosystems — which have survived and, mostly, thrived on this planet for over three billion years — can inform our own efforts at community resilience planning. I discussed how ecosystems conserve energy through seamless integration with their abiotic (non-living) environment and by closing food loops, thus circulating the solar energy initially captured by plants throughout the system.

While those basic energy-conservation mechanisms — amounting to “reduce, reuse, recycle” in human terms — provide ecosystems with a stable basis for continuance (sustainability), they are not resilience mechanisms as such. However, nature has provided additional mechanisms  — including biological diversity and tight feedback loops — that allow ecosystems to recover from perturbations such as forest fires, eventually returning to their pre-disturbance state.

Species diversity ensures that if the population of an organism such as an insect pollinator that plays a critical role in an ecosystem is greatly reduced or eliminated — victimized, say, by predation, disease or human-made pollution — another pollinator’s numbers will increase to at least partially fill the role of the first. Thus the plants that depend on pollination for reproduction will survive — possibly preventing a general collapse of the ecosystem and eventually allowing it to recover to its previous state of dynamic equilibrium.

But what if there are no “other” pollinators to take the place of the original?

When diversity is reduced in natural or human systems, they become less resilient and more vulnerable to collapse. For example, monocultural farming has repeatedly led to crop failures that can induce famines such as the famous Irish potato famine of the 19th century. Similarly, economic systems dominated by a few “too-big-to-fail” players are far less resilient than economies that distribute wealth among many smaller institutions.

Thus communities are wise to encourage and invest in local diversity, funding or assisting small businesses, family farms and the like wherever they can. It is unwise to “put all your eggs in one basket,” for example by inviting giant corporations into your community, only to watch them pack up and outsource themselves a few years later.

Feedback loops control energy flows and populations in ecosystems and the ecosphere as a whole. Feedback can be accelerating or diminishing (positive or negative), and can destabilize or strengthen a system, depending on their relationship to the system’s components.

If that seems a bit abstract, think of a forest fire as a destructive accelerating feedback event — it feeds on itself until it consumes the forest. In response, forests have evolved resilience mechanisms that involve reseeding themselves after a fire to take advantage of the nutrients left in the fire’s wake.

This process has been termed “creative destruction” — creative in the sense that the destruction allows for new opportunities — for new organisms to thrive that were crowded out by the original, mature forest.

While creative destruction works in nature — which can rise again from the ashes of a former environmental “regime” — the implied sacrifice of the existing order is unacceptable for human civilization.

Therefore part of the challenge of community resilience planning is identifying destructive and affirmative feedback loops, and learning how they affect human “ecosystems”and how we can make them work for us — a critical topic we’ll explore in the next article in this series.

Community Resilience, Ecosystems and Sustainable Economics

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

This is the first in a series of three articles on community resilience and building a sustainable economy (second article, third article). It is a modified version of an article originally appearing in my syndicated newspaper column “Your Ecological House.”

~PSW

Contemplate, if you will, the concept of  “resilience in complex adaptive systems.”

“What’s that all about? ” you might well ask. “And what’s it got to do with me?”

I’ll answer the second question first. In recent columns I have pointed out that humanity is living in a state of environmental overshoot. We are using up the earth’s resources faster than nature can replace them. We are also filling up the earth’s “waste” sinks — the oceans and atmosphere — faster than nature can reprocess the byproducts of our global economy, bringing us to the verge of ocean ecosystem collapse and the onset of disruptive climate change.

Although these conditions potentially could be rectified by an international crash program of environmental restoration, our current population, economic growth trajectories and politics make such a late-hour campaign seem unlikely — at least until quite a bit more environmental damage has been done and the concomitant economic chaos ensues, forcing the issue.

Although the environmental crisis is global, its effects will be felt locally — by you, your family and your neighbors. And as the global economy weakens, the burden of response to the crisis will fall increasingly on local communities.

That’s why some communities are developing “community resilience strategies.” Those communities that have anticipated the changing conditions, invested in sustainable local economies and prepared resilient responses to “systemic perturbations” (trouble), will have a better chance of prospering, or at least of weathering the crisis, than those that do not.

Modeling Community Resilience on Ecosystems

But how can you prepare a resilient response to unknown or unpredictable developments?

That’s where studying “resilience in complex adaptive systems” such as ecosystems and human communities comes in. Ecosystems and human communities are complex because they are comprised of many elements that are constantly interacting with one another and the environment. They are adaptive, because they are capable of changing to meet new conditions imposed by internal and external forces.

Yet they also seek stability to maintain their core function — supporting life in an ecosystem, supporting people in a town. How do ecosystems — and, by inference, how can human systems — maintain their core functions when subjected to stress?

First, the life forms in an ecosystem are completely adapted to local environmental conditions including available sunlight, temperature and nutrients. That provides them with a strong basis for stability and self-correcting behavior to resist perturbations that fit within predictable or previously experienced parameters — “normal” environmental fluctuations such as cyclical changes in weather patterns or periodic fires.

Although humans can create environmental systems that are not constrained by location — we can live at the South Pole, if we so desire — there are significant costs to living in an environmentally inappropriate fashion. For example, consuming too much water by growing lawns in the desert is environmentally destructive and, therefore, ultimately self-destructive. If desert communities adopt strict water-conservation rules that require people to choose between, say, growing a lawn or taking showers, those communities will increase their chances of remaining viable. (They can landscape with native plants that are suited for the environment.)

Second, ecosystems conserve energy — and thus make sufficient energy available for the life forms they support — by closing nutrient loops. Once plants store the sun’s energy in their tissue, that energy is circulated as food up and down the food chain until it is once again reduced to basic plant food: nothing goes to waste.

Humans are notorious energy wasters, using far more energy than is required for the maintenance of their systems. By closing loops within their local economies — for example, reprocessing recycled materials locally, rather than sending them to distant countries for reprocessing, and reusing local food and human “waste” to grow food— communities can conserve energy while increasing local economic opportunity. Simultaneously, they will reduce their reliance on increasingly unreliable external energy, material and food supplies.

While seamless adaptation to local conditions and energy efficiency stabilize ecosystems against normal environmental fluctuations, additional strategies have evolved to protect against unique or extreme events or conditions. They include biodiversity, which ensures redundancy within an ecosystem’s living components; feedback mechanisms that regulate energy imbalances; and innovation potentials that allow for entirely new systems to evolve in response to severe perturbations.

In the next article in this series, Community Resilience, Diversity and Feedback Loops, I’ll discuss how to adopt these strategies to enhance community resilience at our ecological house.

~PSW

 

Building A Sustainable Local Economy: First Thoughts

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

Part of Ecotecture’s eco-nomics discussion is a series of reports on the ongoing meetings and activities of the Sustainable Economy Discussion Group (SEDG) of Corvallis, Oregon. The group began meeting in the fall of 2011, and Ecotecture’s first SEDG article covers the December, 2011 meeting. 

Although the purpose of SEDG is to explore issues in sustainable economics, SEDG’s members are not professional economists. They are ordinary citizens who bring a variety of perspectives to economic issues. SEDG is thus a “peer learning group” focused on macroeconomics and local economic vitality and sustainability.

Learn more about SEDG and  join our conversations by posting comments on our articles or sending us guest blogs about your community’s economic discussions or initiatives.

~PSW

Notes: Corvallis, Oregon is a college town (home to Oregon State University [OSU]) with a population of about 55,000, including 22,000 students and 33,000 townsfolk. Corvallis’s economy, like that of most American towns, has declined since its peak in the pre-2008 era.

Corvallis is situated in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, an agricultural area similar to California’s highly productive Central Valley. Yet for various reasons — lack of sufficient population to consume the local agricultural products, the relative price paid for products on the international market and so on — much of the valley’s products are sold outside of the area or abroad.

For example, many local farms produce grass seed (for lawns and golf courses) which is sold worldwide. Meanwhile, much of the food consumed in Corvallis, like that most of the rest of the country, is shipped in from other states and countries. That said, Corvallis does have a thriving, year-round farmer’s market and several restaurants that feature locally-supplied, organic food to the extent possible.

Strengthening and closing local food loops is just one aspect of creating a viable local economy discussed in the SEDG meetings.

(These notes are an edited version of the SEDG monthly meeting minutes sent to the membership.  SEDG members quoted or mentioned in these notes are usually identified by initial only to protect their privacy. Some members prefer to have their full name published.)

SEDG Meeting Notes #2 — January, 2012: — Main Topic: “Building a Sustainable Local Economy.”

Context:

About one year ago, The Corvallis city government empowered a citizens’ advisory group to write an economic development proposal for Corvallis. Called the Corvallis Economic Development Commission (CEDC) ,the group was made up mostly of citizens from the business community and one City Council member who was a former OSU business school professor.

In January, the CEDC came up with a plan to revive the city’s flagging economy. The plan calls for attracting more high-tech businesses to Corvallis, based in part on the presence of the University which emphasizes technical studies. Various incentives such as economic development loans and special zoning rules to facilitate building were proposed as ways of attracting businesses.

The Plan was adopted by the City Council, albeit over the objections of three Council members, including Mike Beilstein who participates in some SEDG meetings. Beilstein wrote and alternative plan that proposed an emphasis on creating more housing in Corvallis, rather than trying to attract more businesses.

Beilstein had also said, in a previous Council meeting in which the chairwoman of the CEDC Elisabeth French presented the commission’s plan to the Council, that he didn’t think that growth, per se, should necessarily be a goal of economic development. French disagreed with him, setting up a growth/anti-growth discussion that I proposed the SEDG take up.

As noted in the original article in this series, SEDG “grew out of an earlier discussion group based on the study of the book “Prosperity Without Growth” by Tim Jackson.” It is fair to characterize SEDG as being opposed to the unlimited-economic-growth-on-a -finite-planet paradigm that informs our macroeconomy. One of the groups missions is to explore how an economy can sustain itself without perpetual growth.

Before the January meeting, I sent a memo to the group proposing that we draft a green, sustainable alternative to the CEDC’s economic development plan:

“Initially, we want to respond to the proposals of the recently completed report by the City of Corvallis’s Economic Development Commission. The report apparently recommends the predictable pro-growth ideas incorporated in many such reports — attracting outside capital, creating enterprise zones and on — and makes little reference to green or sustainable development or building on our local resources. Our group can offer an alternative.”

In the January meeting, the SEDG decided that researching, writing and promoting a sustainable economic development proposal for Corvallis would be an appropriate activity for our group. The objective would be to draft a plan for moving  a local, steady-state economy. The plan would be based on reliance on local physical and human resources, and closing the production/waste loops in the local material economy. The plan would address strengthening community resilience in a an era of  diminishing resources and a slumping globalized economy.

Local Economy Brainstorm Session

A.L, a new SEDG participant, proposed that the community of Corvallis, perhaps working with OSU, create a “call center” for dispensing information. The idea is that one local product we have as a center of intellectual activity (college town) is plenty of  information, which is, of course, 95 percent or more demateralized, that is, can be bundled and transported at very little expense to the environment.

So the call center [or digital data dispensary] would be a way to trade “goods” for money without having to ramp up our physical manufacturing or agricultural base with the concomitant expenditure of energy or capital. One area of local expertise is technology of all types, including agricultural knowledge. While the “call center” would be a high-tech business, it would be a locally grown business dependent on local capital that directs a money flow toward, rather than away from the town.

Another member, A.K, came up with the idea of a voluntary transportation tax. Everyone who used gas would charge him or herself a small tax per gallon. That money would be pooled and used for some good purpose — to provide alternative transportation, for example.

Food and Sustainability Discussion: (This is in the context of discussing making Corvallis and its environs more sustainable by growing and consuming more of it own food.)

• A.L. pointed out that in 1860 agriculture was 60 percent of US GDP. He was also concerned that we’re running out of phosphate for our local agricultural system, although the group has not verified this.

(Editor’s comment: Perhaps a moderate reduction in technological reliance in the agricultural sector could lead to more hands-on employment there. This is probably especially true for medium sized, mostly organic farms.)

• Someone pointed out that OSU can’t buy food locally, but this was corrected. Apparently the dormitory food services have purchasing discretion, but might be constrained to buy the cheapest food, which is unlikely to be local or organic. This bears some looking into.

• The “First Alternative Coop” — a local, member owned, organic grocery with two stores in Corvallis, has published an analysis of local vs. regional and long distance food supplies. SEDG should refer to that study rather than attempting to do its own research. There is a good chance that a lot of the information needed to develop a sustainable economic plan for Corvallis and environs already exists, and it would behove our small group to look for that data rather than try to come up with its own.

• It was pointed out that we need more information on how our local and regional agricultural system works, so we can propose ways to make it more sustainable.

• Someone suggested that we explore ways to reduce fossil fuel use in our community. This is in part a way to develop local economic power, since a substantial part of the community’s money is spent on fossil fuels imported from elsewhere. Bicycle and public transportation ideas were discussed. That discussion is ongoing and will appear in subsequent posts on Ecotecture.

(Editor’s Comment: At an earlier meeting, a SEDG participant asked a broader questions: What can we do to reduce our dependency on large, international corporations?)

Relevant Historical Note

• Someone raised a point about attracting outside business and capital. Some years ago, the City of Corvallis offered land and zoning incentives for Hewlett Packard Corporation (HP) to build an R&D campus here. For a while, the HP facility was one of the major employers in town, paying good salaries to high-tech workers. Then HP, headquartered elsewhere, moved toward a globalized economic model; after which it fell on hard times. One result of these changes in policy and the wider problems of the company is that it drastically reduced its Corvallis staff, even to the point of closing some of the buildings on its campus. This has hurt the overall economic health of the town.

The sudden reduction of HPs staff was discussed as an object lesson in relying on outside capital to fuel a local economy — better that a local economy should be built on local resources.

~PSW

Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make, but our commission does not raise your price by one cent. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson
The End of Growth, Richard Heinberg
Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, Herman Daly
Steady State Economics, Herman Daly
Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Meadows, Randers and Meadows
Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up, Stiglitz, Sen and Fatoussi
Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster, Peter Victor 

Related posts on Ecotecture:

Eco-nomics: Modeling a Sustainable Economy on Ecosystems 

Can Gross National Happiness Lead to An Economic Revival? 

Visualizing a Sustainable Economy: How Much Is Enough? 

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.

Can Gross National Happiness Lead to an Eco-nomic Revival?

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Like many environmental writers, I dash off the occasional rant against excessive materialism. That’s because part of my job is to track the numbers that show how our apparently insatiable desire for more and more stuff is degrading the environment.

The numbers are depressing. By every measure — deforestation, species lost, soil degradation, rare metal depletion, fishery collapse — human consumption is outstripping the planet’s capacity to sustain itself and support us. But while most people are at least marginally aware of these facts, consumerism, which should be held in check as a matter of human self-preservation, is on the rise in most countries.

Why?

In a phrase: the growth paradigm. That is, the belief that incessant economic growth (driven by consumption) is the only path to general prosperity and well-being.

The growth paradigm is so deeply entrenched in our increasingly global culture that almost everyone accepts the idea that “growth is good” without question. Listen to any newscast: “…there was good news for the economy today, as growth in the output of…” Or, any politician: “…we must grow our economy by…” Or, almost any economist: “…the economic growth engine…” But in the near future we’ll see that growth will not make us richer if we deplete the resources upon which growth depends — if we kill the goose that lays the golden egg. If we want long-term general prosperity, we must redefine prosperity, and discover another path to achieving it.

Gross National Happiness

A possible path has been illuminated by the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) used by the government of the Himalayan country Bhutan to inform its economic and social policies. Coined when Bhutan’s government opened the country to modernization in 1972, the term “gross national happiness” has been intentionally contrasted with Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a standard measure of economic activity.

GDP is defined as “the total value of goods produced and services provided in a country in one year.” The rate of GDP growth, or contraction, is presumed by economists (and journalists, politicians, educators and the business community) to measure the overall health of a country’s economy and, by extension, the well-being of its people.

However, by indiscriminately including “negative,” or non-productive economic activity in their totals, GDP assessments fail to account for important factors that influence human and environmental health. For example, the cost of incarcerating criminals and cleaning up toxic spills is added to GDP as “growth,” but the human cost of crime and the environmental damage of spills are not subtracted. In fact, the impact of economic activity on the environment is simply not measured.

By contrast, GNH is intended to overcome these shortcomings of GDP while also redefining the purpose of an economy — a human creation — as serving the best interests of people. Underlying GNH is the assumption that a growth in well-being does not necessarily correlate with growth in “product.” GNH economic and social policies designed to promote well-being — providing adequate and satisfactory employment for everyone who wants to work; a clean, safe environment; educational opportunity and so on — take precedence over policies designed to increase or concentrate the accumulation of capital.

Measuring Gross National Happiness

How is happiness measured? Whereas GDP can be measured by tallying cash flows, GNH must be measured by surveying people’s self-assessment of their physical and psychological health, level of security and satisfaction, interpersonal relationships and so on. Bhutan has taken two major surveys (2007 and 2010), asking hundreds of questions of thousands of its citizens.

The survey information is correlated with social and demographic statistics such as crime rates, mental health issues, and longevity. (For example, low rates of infant mortality correlate positively with subjective expressions of well-being.) Combining this information, the Bhutanese government crafts policies that preserve the country’s traditional Buddhist culture while selectively allowing modernization that improves the general welfare.

While the U.S. cannot directly export “happiness indexes” from small, rural Bhutan, we can learn from its experience and develop our own indexes. Like the Bhutanese, we are generally healthier and happier if we have strong social ties, satisfying employment, adequate leisure time and a nurturing environment. If you think about it, simply acquiring more stuff might not be the ticket to happiness at your ecological house.

~PSW

This post originally appeared as a syndicated column in the Your Ecological House series in several newspapers around the U.S.

Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

Gross National Happiness of Bhutan, Wangchuk and Muller
Gross National Hapiness: Why it Matters for America, Arthur Brooks
Bhutan Gross National Happiness, Frank Ra
Gross National Happiness versus Predatory Capitalism, Norbert Braun
Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson
Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up, Stiglitz, Sen and Fatoussi
Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster, Peter Victor

Related Posts on Ecotecture:

Eco-nomics: Modeling a Sustainable Economy onEcosystems
Visualizing a Sustainable Economy: How Much is Enough?

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.

Visualizing A Sustainable Economy: How Much Is Enough?

Friday, January 13th, 2012

Introduction: The Sustainable Economy Discussion Group (SEDG) 

Part of Ecotecture’s eco-nomics discussion will be reports on the ongoing meetings and activities of the Sustainable Economy Discussion Group (SEDG) of Corvallis, Oregon. The Group, which began its informal monthly meetings at a local coffee house in October, 2011, grew out of an earlier discussion group based on the study of the book “Prosperity Without Growth” by Tim Jackson. (That group was organized by the Corvallis branch of The Natural Step of Oregon.) 

 The purpose of SEDG is to explore issues in sustainable economics. SEDG’s members are not professional economists, but ordinary citizens who bring a variety of perspectives to economic issues: a farmer/agronomy student, a retired forester, a retired USDA rural infrastructure development specialist, a high school science teacher, a school psychologist, an ecologist, a Corvallis City Council member, Ecotecture’s editor and others. 

 SEDG is thus a “peer learning group” focused on macroeconomics and local economic vitality and sustainability. Since its discussions cover conditions and developments relevant to people and economies everywhere — globalization, the limits to growth, consumerism, steady-state economics, community economics — Ecotecture finds them relevant to its goal of empowering our readers to solve environmental problems. 

 We invite you  join SEDG’s conversations by posting comments or by sending us guest blogs about your own community’s economic discussions or initiatives — if your experiences inform our readers, we’ll publish them. 

~PSW

(Note: Corvallis, Oregon is a college town (Oregon State University) with a population of about 55,000 including 20,000 students. Corvallis’s economy, like that of most American towns, has declined since its peak in the pre-2008 era.

These notes are an edited version of the SEDG monthly meeting minutes sent to the membership. Some the SEDG members quoted or mentioned in these notes are given pseudonyms to protect their privacy. Pseudonyms will be noted: otherwise, assume the name is real.)

 SEDG Meeting Notes #1- December, 2011: — Main Topic: “What is Enough?”

The first event of the evening was the presentation by Maegan Prentice of a video she made of a talk given at the University of Oregon (Eugene) by Rob Dietz. The contents of the video are not summarized here, but Dietz is the Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy (CASSE), and information about his work work may be found on CASSE’s web site.

Maegan would like to make a new video of several SEDG members having a group discussion about “What is Enough.” (I call it “sufficiency” in these notes.)  The three-point framework for that discussion is as follows:

1) We would discuss sufficiency in the context of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.” The Hierarchy, (from my notes) is as follows:

• physiological needs — breathing, food, water, sleep, etc.
• safety or security — employment, property, etc.
• love and belonging — family, friendship, romantic attachments, etc.
• self-esteem — confidence, self-respect, respect of others, etc.
• self-actualization — acceptance of reality, morality, creativity, etc.

2) Why do we give more value to power than compassion?

3) The Buddhist concept of the Hungry Ghost . From Wikipedia: “Hungry ghost” is a Western translation of the Chinese “èguǐ,” a concept in Chinese Buddhism and traditional Chinese religion representing beings who are driven by intense emotional needs in an animalistic way. … ƒƒ.)

Other Thoughts on a Sustainable Economy

Following the discussion of the “What is Enough” and the new video, a number of other topics were touched on. Here is a (mostly unannotated) list:

• The Global Footprint Network was mentioned.  It will be discussed more in subsequent meetings.

• Capital Limitations: The need to distinguish between natural capital (the capital provided by the earth and ecosystem services) and financial capital. Natural capital circumscribes and limits financial capital. Within the context of that topic we discussed:
- sustainable scale
- the limits to growth
- equitable distribution

• Someone suggested that we should abandon Gross National Product (GNP) as a measure of prosperity and substitute Gross National Happiness (GNH). GNP measures negatives as well as positives — virtually all recorded economic transactions. Therefore the cost of incarcerating a felon is part of the nation’s “product.” So is the cost of cleaning up the environment after a toxic spill. In other words, GNP confuses unproductive with productive, and wasteful with regenerative economic activity, and gives the impression that the growth of GNP is always good, and the more growth the better, but doesn’t reflect how economic activity affects people’s well being.

Gross National Happiness measures the quality of life. From Wikipedia: The term “gross national happiness” was coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s then King Jigme Singye Wanchuck, who has opened Bhutan to the age of modernization… He used the phrase to signal his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan’s unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values…ƒƒ)

• It was also mentioned that there are two types of sustainable economic models: Steady State vs. Sustainable Development. Evolving toward a steady-state economy is an appropriate goal for developed economies, whereas sustainable development is appropriate for less developed countries.

~PSW

Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make, but our commission does not raise your price by one cent. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson
The End of Growth, Richard Heinberg
Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, Herman Daly
Steady State Economics, Herman Daly
Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Meadows, Randers and Meadows
Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up, Stiglitz, Sen and Fatoussi
Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster, Peter Victor 

Related posts on Ecotecture:

Eco-nomics: Modeling a Sustainable Economy on Ecosystems 

Can Gross National Happiness Lead to An Economic Revival? 

 

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.

 

Eco-nomics: Modeling a Sustainable Economy on Ecosystems

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

What is “eco-nomics?” It is a term comprised of the prefix of “ecology” (and “economy”) and the suffix of “economics” — implying that the two fields are closely intertwined.

Environmental writers often note that “ecology” and “economics” have the same prefix, “eco,” derived from the Greek oikos, meaning “house.” The suffix of ecology, “-logy,” means “knowledge,” so ecology literally means “the knowledge of the house.” The suffix of economics, “-nomics,” means “management and measurement of,” so economics literally means the “management and measurement of the household.”

Of course “house” (eco), in both words carries the connotation of “earth” — the house we all dwell in. Both the knowledge and management of our earthly house is implied by eco-nomics.

Ecology is the study of ecosystems, and economics is the study of the production, distribution and consumption of commodities. The two subjects are generally studied separately.

Furthermore, the growth and health of  “the economy” is usually seen as unrelated to, or even in conflict with the health of the planetary ecosystem, or ecosphere. This is an artificial distinction, because the human economic system is entirely dependent upon the ecosphere to sustain it.

Designing an ecology-based economy requires a completely rethinking our current economic models. Ultimately, for the human economy to be sustainable, it must be functionally integrated with the ecosphere and obey the natural laws that govern ecosystems.

Eco-nomics is the art and science of modeling economies on the principles by which ecosystems function and sustain themselves. Although the specific organisms living on the earth during any given geological time period have changed, the basic principles by which ecosystems function and sustain all life have remained essentially the same since they evolved 3.6 billion years ago. (That’s roughly 3,600 times longer than humans have inhabited the earth.)

Ecosystems are sustainable because:

1) They use the virtually limitless renewable energy from the sun to photosynthesize molecules that function as both the basic building blocks and the energy sources for living tissue. (This “value-adding” — turning simple, non-living molecules into more complex molecules usable by living systems — is called “primary production.” )

2) Through myriad chemical reactions they cycle and recycle those basic building blocks throughout an ecosystem until all the usable energy is extracted from them and they are broken down into their original non-living molecular components; after which the remnant molecules are recycled back into the tissue of energy gathering sub systems (usually green plants) where, using more energy from the sun, they are again synthesized into biomass building blocks.

Ecosystems do not waste materials – the waste of one organism is the food of another in an endless cycle of regeneration. 

 3)  The biomass (total living tissue) of an ecosystem is limited by the resources – sunlight, water, minerals – available in its locale. Generally, resources are not concentrated in specific locales by the actions of living agents – certainly not on a scale remotely comparable to the concentration of resources by human agency. Ecosystems are sustained by maximizing the use of local resources.

4) Evolutionary mechanisms generate diverse subsystems (species) until all or most of the available niches within an ecosystem are filled. Diversity and functional overlap between species (many types of spiders eating the same insects, for example, and one type of spider eating many types of insects) assures that overall ecosystem function will continue – energy flows will not be catastrophically disrupted – in the event that a particular species is reduced in numbers or goes extinct.

These four mechanisms – reliance on renewable energy; reusing and recycling materials; limiting biomass production to locally available resources; and optimizing diversity to ensure continuity of energy flow – have underpinned ecosystems since they evolved as life’s supporting structure 3.6 billion years ago.

Modern human economies, by contrast, rely almost entirely on:

1) non-renewable energy sources

2) energy that flows in primarily linear, as opposed to circular pathways, leaving dissipated energy and degraded matter that has no possibility of timely regeneration at the end of the path

3) long-distance rather than local or bioregional resource bases

4) movement toward centralization and monopolization, as opposed to the diversification of the means of production and exchange.

Clearly our economic models are not sustainable. The planet-wide depletion of basic resources such as potable water and fertile topsoil, the inability of the ecosphere to absorb more of our atmospheric, terrestrial or aquatic waste and the rapid loss of life-supporting ecosystem services such as pollination and flood prevention have all reached critical thresholds. Those factors, combined with the incessant and accelerating growth in our demand for resources, sinks and services are clearly bringing us to the brink of an environmental catastrophe of unprecedented scale.

It is imperative that we rapidly restructure our economic activities so they begin to regenerate, rather than continue to debase the ecosphere. Rather than fostering the independence (and temporary dominance) of one species, homo sapiens, we must develop a sustainable economy that fosters the interdependence of all living beings and enhances rather than degrades the health of the ecosphere. We must study Eco-nomics, and create a sustainable economy modeled on the structure and function of ecosystems.

The creation of those new models will require the meeting of many minds, and open exchange of ideas from all over the planet and all walks of life. I invite you to share your thoughts in the comment section below.

~PSW

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.