Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy
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San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
2009, 210 pages
“There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it…The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.”
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
Perhaps it is the economic crisis. Maybe it is climate change, soaring extinction rates or the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor. Or then again, it could simply be the nagging sense among more and more people that the human project has somehow gone awry. Whatever the case, in recent years, we have witnessed an explosion of popular interest in books that question, even excoriate, the most fundamental assumptions of our current, growth-at-all-costs economic system.
It is in this mould that Peter G. Brown, a professor at McGill University, and Geoffrey Garver, an environmental consultant and lecturer in law in Montreal, cast their excellent new book. Yet the authors offer much more than another indictment of 21st century, laissez-faire market fundamentals. With humanity in the throes of an ecological crisis (described in the book as a “lethal failure of imagination”), the authors propose a new ethic. They offer a practical guide for differentiating between right and wrong relationships, both within human society, and between humans and the planet’s entire community of life of which humans are a part.
The authors believe that it is “wrong relationships” – those between fellow humans, future generations and other species – that lie at the heart of the problems that modern societies face today. An economy based on consumerism and an unquestioned obsession with perpetual growth has led to a fundamental disconnect in the human-Earth relationship. Their “right-relationship” ethic is something like sustainability, but it goes much deeper. Starting from the premise that the economy is part of the Earth system, and therefore subject to ecological rules, the right-relationship ethic challenges us to reconsider humanity’s place in the world.
In this respect, Brown and Garver owe much to Aldo Leopold for his land ethic, penned over 50 years ago, which forms the foundation for their concept of right relationship. But the authors’ prescriptions for a whole-Earth economy also find inspiration in civil-society movements, and in Quaker traditions of human solidarity, betterment and well-being.
The authors ask five simple questions about the purpose, size, fairness, functioning and governance of our current economic system, and then systematically demonstrate that it has been built on assumptions that are at odds with scientific realities. They argue that an economy guided by right relationship offers a new way forward, with ideas ranging from new forms of governance institutions to ecologically based limits on the consumption of resources and production of wastes.
The authors maintain that the economic-growth imperative has failed to distribute wealth fairly, has not reversed environmental devastation and, once basic needs have been met, has not improved human well-being. Moreover, our current economic system simply has no way of putting any boundaries on excessive consumption and waste.
These shortcomings, say Brown and Garver, are signs of an economy in wrong relationship with the Earth. A whole-Earth economy in right relationship would not be guided by the need to constantly maintain growth (although some forms of expansion may continue). Instead, it would be driven by a desire to maintain the integrity, resilience and beauty of life’s commonwealth, and to provide for the health and well-being of present and future generations. The authors then describe four steps that people can take, including non-violent direct action, to advance this paradigm shift.
Some of what Brown and Garver advocate – such as the need for population limits, massive wealth redistribution and ecologically based limits on economic activity – will surely be considered controversial – even unrealistic. And this strikes to the heart of the problem.
While the authors’ assessment of the global environmental crisis and their prescriptions for change are well-reasoned and persuasive, the transformation they speak of is nothing short of revolutionary. So ambitious, in fact, that it is hard to imagine it ever taking place. The authors fail to elaborate on how it will happen, except to say that either crisis or a mass epiphany will force “the fundamental reevaluations that will be necessary.” The latter case seems unlikely, and the former is hardly comforting. If the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression hasn’t compelled us to reject our long-held economic assumptions, one wonders what will.
Regardless of what brings about the “big shift,” Brown and Garver believe that the only choice left to human beings may be to have a new platform ready when the situation demands it. By offering a glimpse of what this economy might look like, how it would function and what concrete actions people could take, Right Relationship is the authors’ attempt to prepare humankind for this transition. It is an urgent call to action for people who understand the crisis of the human-Earth relationship, and a wake-up call for those who don’t.
Mark Brooks, an environmental consultant and journalist, is based in Montreal. He publishes a blog on economics and the environment at http://markbrooks.ca.