Corporations and pollution have unleashed a rapidly worsening global ecological crisis. We must choose quickly between either accepting the dire consequences of global climate disruption, or embracing a global ecological reformation. At the base, an ecological reformation is expressed by two themes that will define the ecological turn of civilization. First, is the pursuit of sustainability. The second is designing economic growth to result in ecological improvement. That is our central challenge. The goal is to restore the health of the biosphere while building a prosperous and just ecological civilization that will long endure.
This is not utopianism. It is a matter of politics, economics and eco-technology, plus the nurturance of both freedom and community, and therefore justice and fairness as a common human right and responsibility. It is a task consonant with economic growth in accord with ecological market rules and the pursuit of social and ecological justice. Business, markets and politics are leading us to the brink of an ecological catastrophe. Now is the time for business, markets and politics to lead us instead to a just and sustainable ecological future.
Sustainability is more than renewable energy and a quick global transformation away from fossil fuels and nuclear power. This is necessary and desperately needed, but on its own, 100% renewable energy is not sufficient. Sustainability is life and the ecosphere responding to all influences and co-evolving in a matter that maximizes the prospects for all life, not for any particular species. Sustainability is the process that has allowed life to withstand periodic mass extinctions and once again thrive.
As the mass extinction of the Anthropocene unfolds, the difference is that it has been both unleashed by humanity, and must be remedied by humanity. Humanity has become a self-conscious participant in the global processes of sustainability and must act as a healing force in response to industrial excess. A global ecological reformation means a top to bottom restructure in pursuit of sustainability; not only of energy, but also industry, agriculture, forestry, fishing, and aquaculture. Renewable energy must be combined with global cooling activities to remove carbon from air and oceans by sequestering it in soil and biomass. The aim is reducing the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere toward pre-industrial levels and decreasing the acidification of the oceans, again toward pre-industrial levels at a higher, less acidic pH.
Ecological Economic Growth
The pursuit of an ecological reformation rests upon taking steps to make economic growth and ecological improvement be one and the same. This means disconnecting economic growth from ecological damage, and making it synonymous with ecological improvement. Fundamentally, a global market system whose central concern is economic growth can be sustainable following ecological market rules. The central challenge in building an ecological civilization from industrial business and pillage is not technical (where solutions abound), but legal, financial and therefore political. An ecological transformation represents a fundamental question posed to the polis, the political community, whose area of concern stretches from the local to the global.
Ecological economic growth asserts that sustainability is both possible and absolutely necessary. The consequences of growth are what matters, not growth qua growth. Ecological consequences, positive or negative, flow from the practices, ethics, rules and laws conditioning the nature of economic growth. Selling trillions of dollars’ worth of information in various incarnations on a renewably powered world wide web has tiny ecological consequences for the n+1 copy. Replacement of fossil fuels and nuclear energy will lead to both enormous economic growth and massive decreases in pollution, depletion, and ecological damage. Sustainable agriculture, aquaculture and forestry will not only produce food, but sequester enormous amounts of carbon in soil and biomass with enormous benefits.
Social and Ecological Justice
Unfortunately, I believe it is not possible to create a sustainable economic growth system based on existing social, political and economic relations. The unrestrained power of money, technology and self-interest have proven to be irresistible and have shaped a global system of worsening inequality, gigatons of pollution and war.
Rights and responsibilities, freedom and community must be understood and treated as interdependent. Without freedom, community becomes tyranny. Without community, freedom becomes license. Financial and political power must be balanced, focused and refocused at all times by the rights and powers of those down wind, down river. Power must be democratized. Ecological and social justice must be co-equal imperatives. Without justice we are unlikely to achieve sustainability. Social and ecological justice means, for example, that all outputs of industrial production are captured and reused in a zero pollution/zero waste production regime.
It is a lack of power and injustice that allowed the water of Flint to become poisoned and that enables hazardous polluting chemical plants to be sited in poor neighborhoods from Bhopal in India to Louisiana and Texas in the United States. These plants can be operated pollution-free or not operate at all. That's the real cost of doing business, instead of licensing and legalizing the output of poison.
We must address the issues of who owns, who benefits and who controls, with the conscious intention of creating sustainable market systems. Systems where economic growth leads to ecological improvement and the regeneration of the ecosphere and natural capital, that on the balance sheet becomes inseparable from the growth of finance capital and is supported by the growth of social and ecological justice. We must face with open eyes the basic question: why do we continue to pursue self-destructive economic and market activity on a global scale? The triumph of the self-serving few at the expense of the many and of the ecosphere is a consequence not simply of markets, modernity and technology, but inseparable from injustice, inequality and powerlessness.
In many ways we must challenge received wisdom about what is possible and achievable by democratic market systems in pursuit of sustainability and making economic growth mean ecological improvement. The pursuit of sustainability represents a concrete framework for global ecological economic growth (EEG). This will encompass a number of new initiatives in support of EEG, including a redefinition of fiduciary responsibility, by law or constitutional amendment, to make the pursuit of economic growth and profit also mean the pursuit of ecological improvement within the context of social and ecological justice. We need to consider innovative plans to create trillions of dollars in ecological investment capital through the creation of new sustainability credits monetized on the books of investment banks and a new Bank of the Commons (BOC). This means making economic activity support, reflect and value ecological improvement and restoration and replace profit-driven self-destruction with profit-driven restoration, to do both good and well. We can use this economic tool to finance both the ecological transformation and a basic income grant for all.
There are 37 billion tons of human-linked carbon dioxide emissions annually that are driving global ecological catastrophe and mass extinction. These 37 gigatons can be transformed into trillions of dollars yearly of economic value for ecological restoration, based on sustainability credits with an ecological value of $100 dollars per metric ton calculated by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Each metric ton of carbon dioxide displacement is monetized on the balance sheets of banks as paid-in capital and as cash based on the value of metric tons of carbon dioxide displacement by renewables or efficiency.
An ecological transformation must rise from the grassroots through non-violent mass mobilization in support of ecological transformation: the development of long term local plans for carbon dioxide emission reductions and carbon sequestration in soil and biomass and detailed ecological measures for energy, agriculture, industrial ecology, forestry and aquaculture. 2021 and beyond needs to mark the beginning of a global ecological reformation. It's time to understand what is really at stake. We do not have the luxury of settling once again for marginal change as fires burn in the Amazon, California, Australia and Siberia, and the ice sheets melt.
A global non-violent citizen's movement for ecological change informed by both the gravity of events and the lessons learned from many previous non-violent grassroots struggles that have overcome what seemed at first to be impossible odds, is crucial for building an ecological future. The shape of this ecological future depends on much more than new technologies, detailed plans for a global transformation toward renewable energy and strategies for greenhouse gas reduction, and sustainability for energy, agriculture, industrial ecology, forestry, and aquaculture.
The fate of our civilization and the health of the ecosphere is in our hands. We have no time to waste. Humanity has become a self-conscious participant in the co-evolutionary response of the ecosphere to all influences, to help it maintain or restore conditions favorable for all life. The pursuit of sustainability is the crucial mission for humanity in the 21st century and beyond. The future and the fate of the biosphere is very much in our hands.
Sustainability credits. Roy Morrison, Climate change and inequality: A new market solution, Wall Street International Magazine, Nov. 1, 2020.
Redefine fiduciary responsibility. Inara K. Scott and Gerlinde Berger-Walliser, It’s Time to Redefine Corporate Social Responsibility, Nov. 28, 2017.
Sending ecological price signal in markets. Benoît Timmermans and Wouter M. J. Achten, From value-added tax to a damage and value-added tax partially based on life cycle assessment: principles and feasibility. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 23, 2217–2247 (2018).
Earth Summit 2021: Global funds sign on to turn trillions of dollars of investments into muscle to push for action to avert climate change.