Earth Policy Institute: Needed — A Copernican Shift

CopernicusBy Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute

In 1543, Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus published “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres,” in which he challenged the view that the sun revolved around the earth, arguing instead that the earth revolved around the sun. With his new model of the solar system, he began a wide-ranging debate among scientists, theologians, and others. His alternative to the earlier Ptolemaic model, which had the earth at the center of the universe, led to a revolution in thinking, to a new worldview.

Today we need a similar shift in our worldview, in how we think about the relationship between the earth and the economy. The issue now is not which celestial sphere revolves around the other but whether the environment is part of the economy or the economy is part of the environment. Economists see the environment as a subset of the economy. Ecologists, on the other hand, see the economy as a subset of the environment.

Like Ptolemy’s view of the solar system, the economists’ view is confusing efforts to understand our modern world. It has created an economy that is out of sync with the ecosystem on which it depends.

Economic theory and economic indicators do not explain how the economy is disrupting and destroying the earth’s natural systems. Economic theory does not explain why Arctic sea ice is melting. It does not explain why grasslands are turning into desert in northwestern China, why coral reefs are dying in the South Pacific, or why the Newfoundland cod fishery collapsed. Nor does it explain why we are in the early stages of the greatest extinction of plants and animals since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. Yet economics is essential to measuring the cost to society of these excesses.

Evidence that the economy is in conflict with the earth’s natural systems can be seen in the daily news reports of collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests, eroding soils, deteriorating rangelands, expanding deserts, rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, falling water tables, rising temperatures, more destructive storms, melting glaciers, rising sea level, dying coral reefs, and disappearing species. These trends, which mark an increasingly stressed relationship between the economy and the earth’s ecosystem, are taking a growing economic toll. At some point, this could overwhelm the worldwide forces of progress, leading to economic decline.

These increasingly visible trends indicate that if the operation of the subsystem, the economy, is not compatible with the behavior of the larger system—the earth’s ecosystem—both will eventually suffer. Recent events in the economic and financial systems cause one to wonder if we’re beginning to see the effects of an economy outgrowing its natural base. The larger the economy becomes relative to the ecosystem, and the more it presses against the earth’s natural limits, the more destructive this incompatibility will be. The challenge for our generation is to reverse these trends before environmental deterioration leads to long-term economic decline, as it did for so many earlier civilizations.

An environmentally sustainable economy—an eco-economy—requires that the principles of ecology establish the framework for the formulation of economic policy and that economists and ecologists work together to fashion the new economy. Ecologists understand that all economic activity, indeed all life, depends on the earth’s ecosystem—the complex of individual species living together, interacting with each other and their physical habitat. These millions of species exist in an intricate balance, woven together by food chains, nutrient cycles, the hydrological cycle, and the climate system. Economists know how to translate goals into policy. Economists and ecologists working together can design and build an eco-economy, one that can sustain progress.

  1. Roger Wyer

    This valuable post provides a clear model for holding economics in one hand and ecology in the other so we can see them both at the same time. Just as neither Ptolomy nor Copernicus provided a powerful, comprehensive model of astronomy, neither economics nor ecology provide a model of human possibilities.

    Our answers lie outside the language, beliefs, and history we see in our hands. We don’t have the luxury of time for these two camps to battle it out or come to a compromise. Let’s start looking beyond…

  2. Bobby B.

    “The larger the economy becomes relative to the ecosystem, and the more it presses against the earth’s natural limits, the more destructive this incompatibility will be. The challenge for our generation is to reverse these trends before environmental deterioration leads to long-term economic decline, as it did for so many earlier civilizations.”

    To which earlier civilizations are you referring? Did the Mayan compulsion for living sacrifices lead to the extinction of their staples and cause mass starvation? Were the hanging gardens such an affront to Mother Nature that she destroyed Babylon? Did Egypt’s fascination with building pyramids and other large structures create the Sahara Desert, and shrink their kingdom? Did the Roman viaducts cause water shortages and drive Nero to burn Rome? More importantly, when in history – other than the last 150 years as claimed by many environmentalists – has mankind had the ability to impact the world on a global scale?

    We have all been taught that man has survived by being nomadic in nature. He moves to a promising area and adapts to live in it the best he can. If he is unable to adapt, he dies. If he adapts but the area becomes bleak, he seeks out another promising area. If his search for another promising area fails, he dies. The environmental movement’s global destruction scare mongering tactic is an attempt to convince the masses that there are no longer any promising areas, and that the end game is the extinction of mankind. That could be true, or it could play out that many die and the surviving remnant restarts history. The base question for all of us is whether or not we allow ourselves to live in constant fear of a theoretical environmental apocalypse. Do we cower before Gaia, ask forgiveness for every breath we take, and regress? Or do we progress with the understanding that conditions might change (even naturally change) and force us to adapt yet again? The secondary question is whether or not it is prudent to filter every decision through “green” lenses?

    Now, even though most of this post is simply a statist’s condemnation of capitalism, I have to give credit where credit is due and am most impressed that the following sentences were included:

    “Economists rely on the market to guide their decision making. They respect the market because it can allocate resources with an efficiency that a central planner can never match (as the Soviets learned at great expense).”

    Whether one likes it or not, capitalism works.

  3. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    Bob– Check out Lester Brown’s work more thoroughly… there’s nothing “anti-capitalist” about his approach. And, while none of the scenarios you mentioned actually played out, there is evidence that previous civilizations did decline, in part, because of resource depletion. Jared Diamond’s Collapse is probably the most well-known recent work that addresses this concept: the first chapter in the Washington Post gives an overview of his approach.

    And doesn’t your description of humanity sound a bit like the aliens in Independence Day?

  4. Bobby B.

    What I have read of Mr. Brown’s work suggests he believes that the government has the power to coerce the private sector into developing tomorrow’s solutions for today’s perceived problems. I did not mean to imply that he is 100% anti-capitalist. I have inferred that he would prefer a blended, state-run pseudo-capitalism in which the government dictates via an environmental yardstick what products any given company can “freely” produce; and how it can “freely” produce them.

    I also don’t see the connection to the aliens in “Independence Day.” They were ship-bound beings looking for the natural resources necessary to fuel their ships and society. They were not looking for a new place to settle.

  5. blutown

    All Brown is describing is the economic concept of “externalities”. He then simply states what some of the externalitites are of our current industrial-era economy. The holy grail will be to find out how to price in the cost of the externalities (there is no such thing as “free” in economics)and we will have a much smoother transition to the next world economy. Without the price of the externalities built-in, we will simply keep going until the system collapses under its own weight (business as usual).

    I believe that we witnessing the beginning of the end of the business as usual, industrial-era economy. What is yet to be determined is the path we will take to the next world economy. We need a lot more Lester Brown’s in the world to avert the second path.

  6. Steven Earl Salmony

    Implementing a Copernican Shift?

    There are likely many ways to bring about a “Copernican Shift”. Perhaps I can put one forward here.

    The gigantic scale and skyrocketing growth of the human population on Earth appears to soon become patently unsustainable on a planet with size, composition, frangible ecology and finite resources of Earth. Open discussion of the rapidly increasing size of the overwhelming “human species colossus” as a clear and present danger to future human wellbeing and environmental health needs to occur sooner rather than later. With regard to so serious and imminent a threat to the future of life as we know it, the current, calamitous choice of many too many leaders today to act on the wish to deny subjective discomfort and avoid objective danger could lead to some sort of incomprehensibly catastrophic ecological disaster. Perhaps one way to engender a Copernican Shift would be for leaders of the human community to be guided in their thought, speech and action by intellectual honesty, the best available science, moral courage and faith in God and, in so doing, choose to respond ably to dangerous circumstances through acknowledging, addressing and overcoming every human-induced global challenge.

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