visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)  III. Agenda for Debate
Chapter III, Section headings:
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dot.gif (101 bytes) Limits of material expansion dot.gif (101 bytes) Economic redistribution
dot.gif (101 bytes) Sustainable scale dot.gif (101 bytes) Immediate needs & longterm perspectives
dot.gif (101 bytes) From consumption to conservation dot.gif (101 bytes) Exacting implications


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Limits of material expansion: There is a strong tendency in modern society to evaluate economic activities in terms of their contribution to economic growth, measured by the increase of the Gross National Product. But that yardstick and horizon for economic life lead to unsustainability. For the limited carrying capacity of the earth cannot endure an ever-expanding production of goods which require resources and energy, and pollutes the environment. Therefore, especially in rich countries, another horizon of economic life has to be taken into account besides material expansion, namely the contribution towards sustainability itself. This new way of speaking of sustainable development is consistent with the ecumenical tradition of concern for wholeness of life. Such a measure must consider:

- sustaining the life of all people, with a preferential option for the poor;
- preserving the earth as a good place to live;
- assuring the availability of life-support resources for the coming generations.

Sustainable scale: This other view of economic development demands that a choice be made in favour of an appropriate scale of production and consumption, especially in the rich northern societies, so that the earth is not overburdened, and so that the poor can live. This choice cannot be expected from the spontaneous working of the existing markets.

There is a fundamental challenge to economists to find both theoretical and practical criteria to help make decisions about efficient allocation, just distribution and what may best be termed "sustainable scale".

The choice of the appropriate scale to ensure sustainability does not imply that the market-economy must be traded for one or another kind of centrally planned state. What is needed rather is to create a limited set of boundary conditions, particularly with regard to the maximum use of resources and the maximum allowable emission of such pollutants as carbon dioxide.

This is not the first time the world community has found it necessary to impose limits to the operation of the market. The nineteenth century movement which resulted in the global ban on slavery imposed a limit which was bitterly resisted by those opposed to interference in the workings of the market. Today the ban is almost universally accepted. Similarly the political decision to prohibit the employment of young children in mines was widely opposed but is now seen to be a legitimate constraint or boundary within which the market must operate. Yet another widely accepted constraint is the requirement to mark and observe the Plimsoll line on ships so that they are not overloaded. Although originally opposed by shipowners, the new law saved both the lives of many sailors and the cargo as well.

The setting of ecological boundaries to the consumption of certain irreplaceable resources, or the emission of certain pollutants, for example, in time must become accepted as normal and efficient standards and constraints, just as are the boundaries limiting the employment of human beings or the overloading of ships. Indeed we would argue for the setting of an appropriate ecological "Plimsoll line" to measure the bearing capacity and to prevent the overloading of our global ark.

[N.B.  In 1875, at the instigation of Samuel Plimsoll, the British Parliament passed a Merchant Shipping Act which required that a load line be marked on the hull of every cargo ship to indicate the maximum depth to which the ship could be safely loaded. The Plimsoll line was widely used and in 1930, officially called the International Load Line, it was adopted by 54 countries. In 1968 a new line for new and larger ships went into effect. (1989 Encyclopedia Britannica) See also discussion in preparatory paper, "The Economist's Response to Ecological Issues," by Herman Daly. ]

By setting the scale in which economic life is contextualized, the working of the market can orient the economy to higher degrees of efficiency in relation to the environment and to the use of natural resources, especially energy. Firms required to internalize their pollution costs, for example, will maximize efficiency to minimize their use of energy and production of waste. This process has already begun.

From consumption to conservation: The underlying shift of economic perspective must be from a "flow" to a "stock" orientation to preserve and to improve economic and natural stocks. This also implies more recycling and a longer product lifecycle.

Reorienting the tax-base of government is one specific encouragement to move in this direction. There is need to lessen the multiple burdens on the input and use of labour and to add weight on the input and use of energy and environmental factors, for example by means of an "eco tax." Reorienting the economic base of government can be assisted by churches and peoples movements which motivate members to participate in public life to encourage a process of disclosure, helping to orient corporations, trade unions, political parties and other social institutions toward a truly sustainable society.

Economic redistribution: Changing the underlying goal from maximizing the growth of output (or GNP) toward minimizing the throughput of resources and the production of pollutants, requires seeking the solution to poverty in the areas of redistribution and population policy, rather than in aggregate economic growth. Redistribution takes place both as an effect of changes in market forces (such as price) and as a result of planned initiatives. Whether it should be accomplished by sharing work and maintaining the income-through-jobs link, or whether that link should be broken, is a matter for study. Decisions on population growth levels require consideration of future generations and a choice between more people living at lower levels of resource use versus fewer people living at higher levels. Then the question must be faced as to what is a sufficient level of resource use for a good life over time? What technical limits on emissions and throughput does this require? How can the system be more efficient and reduce waste? These are complex questions. But avoiding them by trying to produce ever more goods for ever more people is the road to ecological ruin.

Immediate needs and long-term perspectives: People in Eastern Europe (e.g., Poland) and in China, among other places, are not generally interested in new economic paradigms or alternative models. Their immediate task is to build the market economy and the appropriate institutions for a democratic political system. They are on a new and difficult road, full of trial and error, with many tensions and problems to be overcome. In this context, sustainability is often considered only as a laudable but distant goal, one which must wait as countries feel their way from central planning to the market economy. Whether environmental conditions are such that a response to the challenge of sustainability can be postponed responsibly is by no means clear (e.g., in places such as Upper Silesia).

Similarly, for people living in much of the developing world, the immediate question is survival, with focus on how to increase production of goods to ensure this. Although they may be already suffering from the environmental depredations of the past generation, their eagerness, and indeed necessity, to increase production adds strain on the environment and increases the need for the richer countries to reduce their own demands on resources and ecological space.

There is need for firms and countries to internalize their pollution costs. A ban is required on the export of toxic wastes from wealthy countries to poor countries which, tempted from the perspective of their poverty, accept the risks associated with such wastes. In the first instance, costs should be internalized to the firms that cause pollution, and secondarily to the nation under whose laws the firms operate.

New patterns of international migration in the last decade of this century are another sign that global inequalities cannot be sustained in the long run. Developing such phenomena as "Fortress Europe" or "Fortress North America" will not solve the problem, nor will the erasure of national boundaries by free migration.

Exacting implications: No one should have any illusions about the possible implications of accepting this new way of seeing and responding to economic reality.

For example, starting from strict standards of restraint on CO2 emissions may imply that means of transport must become more efficient in use of fuel, that transport modalities might shift (from air to sea, for example), or that the overall level of transport would decrease, making the mobility of persons and goods more expensive. The latter consequence could dampen international trade and increase the need for regional self-sufficiency in basic goods. Without encouraging an autarchy that marginalizes poorer regions, strategies for encouraging selective participation in the world economy will be needed.

Another example is sustainability in terms of employment and sufficient care for persons and for the preservation of nature. The cost and range of social and health assistance demanded have risen along with the monetization of services and the breakdown of family and community in industrialized countries. These so-called rich societies which "can't afford" health and education budgets and reduce care for nature and for persons (children, the aged, ill or disabled) are not sustainable.

Further study should be given to the impact of shifting more taxes from labour to throughput (quantities) and emissions, which could reduce the cost of labour. And deeper analysis is needed of the long-term values of community building, voluntary service, and the informal sector: their contribution to sustainable development should be both acknowledged and encouraged.

So-called "green unemployment," caused by closing environmentally unsound factories, can be compensated by creating "green employment," which implies the care and maintenance of culture, of nature, and of natural resources.

To conclude this agenda for further debate: the sustainability of society requires both a new orientation (quality) and contextualization (scale). Reorientation of the economy and the wider society along the lines suggested above requires a new vision of the meaning of sustainability, the necessary structural changes, particularly in the rich industrialized countries, and a political process to translate the vision into reality. Now a look at the process of implementation.

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