for the material abundance some of us enjoy, and equally blamed, among other things, for overflowing landfills. They can be credited for our mobility and thermal comfort, and blamed for climate change. They are a source of mixed blessings.
In the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, famously found a flaw in his economic thinking. He suffered “shocked dis- belief” and was “very distressed” to discover that foxes make indifferent guardians of financial chicken coops. For Greenspan, a stroll through the streets of the poorer American cities a few years earlier might have illuminated theoretical flaws not otherwise visible from the Federal Reserve. Economist Paul Krugman says that the previous three decades of macroeconomics had been “spectacularly useless at best, and positively harmful at worst”. Even so, it is easy to lose sight of how strange and recent the market fetish is. In the late historian Tony Judt’s words, “much of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatiza- tion and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfet- tered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth”.
It being assumed that this is just the way things are in the best of all possible economies, many became oblivious to the increasingly threadbare public estate and their increasingly precarious private circumstances. In the meantime others busied themselves over “methodically unravelling and destabilizing ... the dykes [public institutions] laboriously set in place by our predecessors... Are we so sure”, Judt asked, “that there are no floods to come?” The obvious answer is that floods will come, but the public capacity to foresee, forestall, or at least repair the damage may be only a distant memory of a competent civic culture. How did this happen?
One answer has to do with the diminished expectations and performance of those who profess to lead. On the ramparts of the economy one may still behold the captains of finance and business strangely oblivious to the basic truths about how the Earth works as a physical system, why such knowledge bears importantly on their management of the commerce of the nation, and why the quaint notion of civic obligation should still rouse their curiosity about possible connections between the two.
We are entering a period of extreme climate uncertainty that will stress economic theories and business practices
Many of the factors that gave rise to the industrial economy have changed or no longer exist. Things once presumed true are now known to be less true or altogether false. Most important of these is the belief that fossil fuels are either inexhaustible or can be replaced by something even better. Whatever the source(s), they will not likely have the same return on investment or energy density that we got with oil early in the 20th century. They will also come with costs and consequences yet to be revealed. Other issues of policy have been deferred, including how we might remove from the ledger books the portion of fossil fuels that we cannot burn, without laying waste to the human prospect on one hand or causing undue hardship on the other.
Our energy choices will affect others, including the food system. Americans pay comparatively less for food than everyone else on Earth. The true cost is hidden beneath multiple subsidies for energy, land and capital. As a consequence, one calorie of food on the plate requires between 11 and 70 calories of fossil energy to grow, transport, process, refrigerate and cook. Further, climate instability will cause increasing havoc on farms from drought, heat, flooding and novel ecological conditions. The prospects are even more dismal in many parts of the Middle East, Africa and South Asia affected by both permanent desiccation and rising sea levels.
Other more technical arcana in the arsenal of economics must also be recalibrated to different and more constraining realities. We are entering a period of extreme climate uncertainty that will stress economic theories and business practices honed for less demanding times.
Smith and those dutifully following in his tracks innocently presumed broad and continuing progress. They could confidently expect that such progress would be vouchsafed far into the future by inexhaustible supplies of fossil fuels, non-fuel minerals, abundant forests, deep soils, unlimited fisheries, sustaining and stable ecologies that offered a full menu of natural services, the expanding technological ingenuity to weave these into growing economies, and, not least, they could assume a stable climate. Similarly, they were disposed to assume the superiority of Western culture over all others. Their ideas, culture, technologies and economy were considered to be timeless, at least for a while.
Economic theory followed in due course. Virtually every assumption of classical and neoclassical economics is an outgrowth of conditions existing at the dawn of the industrial world. Theory followed facts presumed to be permanent. Reality has a habit of making fools of those who presume too much.
Against what appears to be an increasingly bleak horizon questions arise. We might pause to ask what useful economic theory might better fit our different circumstances.
It would be presumptuous to say exactly what flag economists should rally around. But in truth, the facts, ecological and economic, are well known, making it all the more odd that they have not been applied with dispatch as remedies toward making a better and more durable economy. With those misgivings, I suggest an economics oriented around four wellknown principles:
1. The economy is a subsystem of the ecosphere. It is thereby bound by its limits and is subordinate to the bio-geo-chemical cycle, energy flows and ecological functions that govern the Earth and the health of its constituent parts. But the ecosphere could proceed quite well without the narcissistic and perpetually
24 Resurgence & Ecologist