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Transforming the Economy for a Just and Sustainable World

Biology was transformed in the s and s, as biologists saw that evolution is driven by competition for energy, which structures and maintains ecosystems—food webs—in which sunlight becomes green plant then herbivore, carnivore, detritivore. Why, then, has the thermodynamic revolution in economics been postponed?

The question will intrigue historians of the future, who will wonder at the profligacy of our culture and our cavalier disregard for ecological limit. Part of the answer is the bet that Julian Simon made in with population activist Paul Ehrlich. Simon won. His victory was widely taken as proof of his infinite-planet theory, despite the obvious flaw in it.

The market price of any commodity is a human construct, the result of market supply and demand, not an indicator of scarcity in any absolute sense.

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From a limited stock of a finite resource—oil, say—we can choose to extract the resource at a greater or lesser rate. If the rate at which we pump oil out of the ground exceeds the rate at which demand for oil increases, the market price will fall. Sharp increases in the prices of significant commodities since fall well outside the standard deviation; for iron ore, the rise has been 4.

More likely, it signals a new and different reality. For coal, copper, corn, silver, sorghum, palladium, rubber, etc. In the infinite planet neoclassical model, anything before James Watt is quaint and distant, and everything before Adam Smith is simply darkness. That's why the Industrial Revolution is more properly called the Hydrocarbon Revolution. Economic history changed when we began systematically to exploit a new stock of energy, the stored fossil sunlight of coal and oil, with its historically unprecedented rate of energy return on energy invested—as high as for oil in the early part of the twentieth century.

It also implicitly includes the warning that the modern economic miracle must end when this stock of thermodynamically cheap energy is used up. The essence of steady-state thinking is that we have to shape our economy to operate on a finite planet, within a stable, sustainable budget of matter-and-energy throughput.

The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you are standing at the present time? On which step of the ladder do you think you will stand about five years from now? The Cantril Scale correlates with objective and subjective markers of well-being. Thrivers have fewer health problems and fewer sick days, while reporting less worry, stress, and anxiety and more enjoyment, happiness, and respect. In Egypt in , 29 percent of people reported themselves as thriving, but that number fell to just 11 percent five years later.

In Tunisia, Cantril Scale data are unavailable prior to , when 24 percent of the population could be classified as thriving; that number fell to 14 percent—a 40 percent decline—in just two years. The nonviolent revolutions in both countries may have been motivated less by abstract commitment to democratic freedom than by widespread experience of a declining standard of living and increased economic insecurity, even in the face of rising GDP.

Within the standard model, a rising GDP and a declining standard of living amount to a paradoxical result.

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Two factors contributed to this paradox: increasing inequality in income and increasing food prices. Before the embargo, the average Egyptian family spent 38 percent of its income on food for comparison: that figure is 7 percent in the United States. Perversely, GDP counted higher food prices as a positive contribution to well-being. And even if GDP were a more accurate measure of material well-being, it would still be mathematically possible for a very large number of people to become worse off economically as per capita GDP rises. This can occur when there is growing income inequality i.

Rising per capita GDP and falling well-being became an economic fact—and a politically charged social condition. Declining standards of wellbeing are politically destabilizing and can lead, expectably enough, to widespread support for sweeping change. In Egypt and Tunisia the regimes happened to be repressive, and the call for change came as a commitment to democracy, an end to corruption, and demands for civil liberties. But within democracies, declining standards of living can have the opposite effect. Democratic forms are no certain proof against a slide into repressive forms.

No system of government—despotic or democratic—fares well when the majority of its citizens experiences a declining standard of living. Thus the changes wrought by the Arab Spring are not only worth celebrating, but also offer us a cautionary lesson. Sustained or rising wellbeing is what is economically and politically desirable, and we should measure it directly, instead of counting on GDP to do the job.


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And because well-being includes non-economic factors like enjoyment of a healthy environment, enjoyment of rich and rewarding leisure time, enjoyment of family and social relations , it is possible to have a rising standard of well-being while per capita GDP remains constant or even decreases. A host of alternatives to gross domestic product have been proposed, and most of them tackle the difficult problem of placing a value on goods and services, and of assessing aspects of human well-being, that never had a dollar price.

The alternatives are controversial, because that kind of valuation creates room for subjectivity—for the expression of values that are not as cut-and-dried as market price. How, after all, do we judge the exact value of the services provided by those bayous in Louisiana? But what about the value of the shrimp fishery that was already lost before the hurricane? And, at a broader and even more difficult level: what about the security and sense of continuity of life enjoyed by the thousands of people who lived and made their livelihoods in relation to those bayous before they disappeared?

Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, is a recent convert to this line of thinking. And perhaps for him, as for many others, a totemic attachment to one symbolic species unfolded into a larger sense of care and concern for the web of life within which that species, and every other, finds a home. It would now deduct the loss of coastal protection from cyclones, and the loss of fish and other products provided by the mangroves. To state the problem in the most abstract, most theoretical terms: if everything that contributes to human well-being had to be bought through a market, and if everything bought in markets was a positive contribution to well-being instead of being a defensive or remedial expenditure , and if the price of everything accurately reflected all the costs involved in its production including ecosystem losses and social costs imposed on individuals and communities by production , then and only then would GDP begin to be an accurate indicator of our level of well-being.

Under those completely unrealistic conditions, the cost-benefit calculations that Zoellick wants to modify would not need to be modified.

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Changing that is no minor tinker but a wholesale transformation of standard economic theory. As noted earlier, before we can count decline of ecosystem services as a loss in our accounting system, we have to know their value.


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  6. Ecological economists have been working to define those values for decades. Some ecosystem services seem to have a clear market value, as when beekeepers are paid to place their hives in orchards needing pollination services. A clear dollar price is attached to the provision of the service. No bees, no crop; by that measure, the value of bee labor is the value of the total harvest.

    Avoided cost gives a solid number for the value to New Yorkers of the water purification services of their watershed. And the value of the storm protection services of Louisiana bayou is, in retrospect, fairly easy to calculate. So is the value of that service into the future: until climate change started depriving insurance companies of the usefulness of historical weather data, they were expert at this sort of risk-to-benefit calculation, because their profit margins depend on them.

    Replacement cost is similar to avoided cost and can be similarly clear.

    The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy

    The factor income approach tries to quantify something else—the increase in human incomes that comes from ecosystem services. When cleaner water boosts marine life, the quantity of fish that can be sustainably harvested increases, which increases the income of fishermen.

    Travel cost and hedonic pricing are familiar to mainstream economists, who have long been using them to estimate some aspects of consumer benefit. If people will pay money to travel to a national park, or pay extra for a house on the beach, then parkland and oceanfront property must provide services with a measurable dollar value. None of these methods is completely satisfactory for all services, and some services have no clearly appropriate method. Different methods give different results.

    Beyond these problems lie others. Interactions and synergies—the ones we know about—have to be mapped, to avoid undervaluing or double counting. And some ecosystem services have no replacements: the ozone layer that protects us, and all life, from radiation damage is crucial to the existence of life on the planet, and no human engineering could ever work as fully or as well. That suggests that the value of the ozone layer is the value of a habitable planet—which many of us would say is infinite. And there are deeper, philosophical issues.

    The selection of the valuation method is in part the selection of the result. Within the results of any one valuation method, the results that are obtained can be internally consistent—they can have reasonable, rational relationships that can serve as the foundation of economically rational decision making. If, for instance, all other variables are equal, then we can logically assume that a certain amount of forest here would provide the same amount of ecosystem services as the same amount of an identical forest there.

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    But the choice between methods can seem arbitrary, hence subjective. Another problem: what is the present value of a cost, or the risk of a cost, that is avoided in the future?

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    Ultimately, putting a cash value on ecosystem services is like putting a cash value on a human life. Romantics protest that both efforts are impossible, morally suspect, and pretty certain to be wrong. All of these are reasonable objections.