What does Earth ask of us? It asks us to know ourselves and to act as citizens of Earth rather than as consumers in an economy that does not fully recognize Earth or its nonhuman components.
When considering this question, my first reaction reveals the deeply ingrained teaching of my formal science education: that anthropomorphizing Earth removes this question from the realm of consideration for scientists. My reaction demonstrates the power of cultural and educational teachings. Recognizing the limits of this conditioned response, after years of working to so see it, I hesitate, take a deep breath, and reconsider. The deep knowledge I have as human tells me that it is precisely this animism that will allow me to answer as fully human, including as scientist. By limiting my response to only the intellectual, I limit the potential for insight.
And so I answer as human, over scientist, and say that Earth asks of us to be fully human, to be citizens of Earth. And since this human is also an ecological economist, the answer extends to say “citizens rather than consumers.” In the same way that understanding myself as human encompasses understanding myself as ecological economist, while I am both, the role of citizen encompasses consumer and goes far beyond it.
Citizen or Consumer?
A powerful analytical tool emerged from economics at the beginning of the 19th century and appears to have taken over—like Hal, the artificial intelligence in the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Economic utilitarianism and the analytical techniques stemming from it have proven to be both compelling and addictive. Attention to analysis of small increments allows for more precise decisions such that we have never looked back. Unfortunately, we appear not to be able to effectively look beyond either. But at what cost do we choose to be consumers over citizens?
As consumers looking to maximize individual satisfaction and producers measuring output using incremental analysis we directed our attention away from the whole—and from the broader purpose. Under the current dominant paradigm, most people understand economics from a micro level with the central purpose of economic activity as the production of goods and services to satisfy needs and wants. We focus a great deal of energy and material on creating and measuring demand then producing to meet it. We do not, however, spend much, or certainly enough, in consideration of those needs and wants. If we did, it is likely we would have figured out how to feed the nearly 1,000,000,000 hungry people in the world without degrading the ecosystems of Earth.
The shift to understanding ourselves as consumers rather than as citizens is enhanced by a focus on reducing or overcoming scarcity, a central concept of current economic thinking. While survival in difficult times requires attention to the basics, focus on scarcity even in times of abundance left us vulnerable to the planetary overshoot and loss of community we now experience. Scarcity centers on that which we do not want. Shifting focus to what we do want would provide a new lens through which we might understand ourselves as citizens within the Earth’s complex, adaptive system.
The power of incremental economic thinking focuses us to a “just-one-more” notion of maximizing individual human well-being. This narrow center of attention and the powerful analytics it allowed captured much of humanity by providing a way to ensure a greater amount of resources for some individuals. This story was, and still is, told in ways that enchant us enough that we relinquish consideration of the broader purpose of collective quality of life for the possibility of maximizing individual material wealth. Indeed, a primary focus of such attention is to social organization that perpetuates the possibility of maximizing individual welfare as more important than quality of life for all, including Earth.
The glamour of the possibility of fantastic individual wealth diverts attention from the interconnectedness of systems that provide for well-being of human and nonhuman. Perhaps we didn’t fully understand the ramifications, having been given language by Adam Smith to believe, or at least hope that some “invisible” force would provide for us collectively. Unfortunately, it did not, as evidenced by continued degradation of Earth, loss of species, and inequality and poverty among humans.
What does the Earth ask of us? It’s a bit of a trick question, isn’t it? The answer, of course, might be “nothing, really,” as the Earth is a set of complex adaptive systems that appears to be able to adapt to what humans do with no consideration of the continued existence of humans. So really, it’s a wonderful question to give us a chance to consider ourselves as part of this complex of systems that we are in, even as we strive to blind ourselves with consumerism!
As citizens, we become part of Earth, part of the Universe of known and unknown, and we reclaim humanity and humility in doing so. As citizen, I am one of many humans and nonhumans with common goals of subsistence and thriving in a resilient, complex planetary system. As consumer, I compete for all I can get—or at least it’s easier to do so without consideration of others than it is when I understand myself as one citizen among many within a structure of common concern to survive.
Rethinking the concepts of scarcity and marginal analysis as the organizing principles of economic thinking has the potential to provide insights that could change our trajectory to a world of abundance and quality of life for all on Earth, human and nonhuman. Flipping the system toward the positive does not gaily skip past an understanding of limits; it simply puts them in a different place within our field of attention. It is entirely possible to engage a precautionary stance with attention to what we DO want. We just have to decide to do that.