For the Common Good

Article excerpt

Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts upon the unthinking. - John Maynard Keynes

THE WILD FACTS

In our time, it is the facts themselves that are more than a little wild and that constitute an assault on unthinking economic dogma. We need little help from wild rhetoric. The wild facts are summarized in calm words in the various State of the World reports put out by the World-watch Institute, and especially in the first essay of the 1987 volume by Lester Brown and Sandra Postel, entitled "Thresholds of Change." Some of the facts are:

1. There is a hole in the earth's protective shield of ozone. More ultraviolet radiation now reaches the earth and will predictably increase skin cancer, retard crop growth, and impair the human immune system. In an unprecedentedly wise response, representatives from thirty-one nations have agreed to a quantitative limit on the production of chlorofluorocarbons, the probable cause of the ozone depletion.

2. There is evidence that the C02-induced greenhouse effect has already caused perceptible warming of the globe. As recently as 1983, noticeable change was not expected for another 50 years. Now the warming is being connected by careful students to the 1988 drought in the Midwest.

3. Biodiversity is declining as rates of species extinction increase due to takeover of habitat, especially of the tropical rainforests, which support half the world's species on only 7% of its land area (Goodland 1987).

In addition, acid rain kills temperate zone forests and raises the acidity of lakes above the tolerance thresholds for many species. Because of industrial accidents, people in Chernobyl, Goiania (Brazil), and Bhopal are dying from air pollution, toxic waste contamination of ground water, and radiation poisoning.

All of these facts appear to us to be related in one way or another to one central underlying fact: the scale of human activity relative to the biosphere has grown too large. Over the period 1950-86, population doubled from 2.5 to 5.0 billion. Over the same time period, gross world product and fossil fuel consumption each roughly quadrupled. Further growth beyond this scale is overwhelmingly likely to increase costs more rapidly than it increases benefits, thus ushering in a new era of "uneconomic growth" that impoverishes rather than enriches. This is the fundamental wild fact that so far has not found expression in words sufficiently feral to assault successfully the civil stupor of economic discourse. Indeed, contrary to Keynes, it seems that the wildness of either words or facts is nowadays taken as clear evidence of untruth. Moral concern is "unscientific." Statement of fact is "alarmist."

In An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (1974) economist Robert Heilbroner reflected about the meaning of this pressure of the human economy on the biosphere. He considered especially the political traumas that will be faced when economic growth is no longer possible. In a 1980 revision of his Inquiry, he projected a continuing (but gradually slowing) growth economy until the middle of the first decade of the next century. When that ends, he sees (as in the earlier 1974 edition) the need for highly authoritarian governments to control the transition to economic decline (Heilbroner 1980, p. 167 ff.).

We appreciate Heilbroner's rare willingness as an economist to connect the growth economy and the physical limits of the ecosphere. This is at the heart of our project as well. But we believe that thought, foresight, and imagination can lead to a much less disruptive transition. Whereas Heilbroner assumes there are no realistic alternatives to capitalism and socialism (both growth economies), we do not agree. To conceive of a radically different economy forces us both to think through the discipline of economics as well as beyond it into biology, history, philosophy, physics, and theology. Part of the assault of the wild facts has been against the very disciplinary boundaries by which knowledge is organized (produced, packaged, and exchanged) in the modern university. …