Ed. Note: We are happy to share this reader response, which is part of a series submitted by undergraduate students at Loyola University Chicago from a course called ENVS 363: Sustainable Business Management.
The current economic structure—one that requires constant growth every quarter in order to be deemed “healthy"—will cause the end of life on this planet. Current economics continues to undervalue natural resources and all of the services that our planet provides to us without a monetary cost. In order to stem the global climate crisis, we need to move our society to an economy that values stagnation and encourages sustainable use of resources.
There are many ideas out there created by people who are much more knowledgeable than I that focus on creating a more sustainable economy. There's Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth, Steady State Economics by Herman Daly, the Circular Economy by Ellen MacArthur, and many more that focus on creating an economy with limits while promoting social equity. I plan to write about how we can realistically move our society towards these more sustainable futures.
As with everything, education is key. From a young age, kids need to be taught about how unsustainable our current way of development is, and the catastrophic effects it is having on our planet. Along with that, we need to stop idealizing wealth because excessive amounts of money often lead to excessive amounts of waste.
Does John Travolta need to own five planes?1 Does Bill Gates need a 66,000 square feet home, with a beach that supposedly has sand imported from Hawaii?2 Does the average number of residences for a wealthy person need to be nine (only when counting residences outside of the US, obviously)?3
The answer to all of those questions is no. The fetishization of wealth that exists in the US is grotesque and contributes to the current economic system in place. In order for people to buy more, they need to want more and be inspired by earning more money. If we can teach people, young kids especially, that owning more doesn't create happiness, then we will be making a step in the right direction.
Next, there needs to be many social services in place. As Giorgos Kallis talks about in The Degrowth Alternative, in order to create a sustainable economy, we have to first go through a
period of degrowth, which will inevitably lead to people losing jobs. Before degrowth can occur, there needs to be enough services in place to support those that will lose their jobs.
Along with that, nations around the world need to start seriously considering Universal Basic Income. For those unaware, Basic Income is an idea where everyone regularly receives a certain amount of money, paid for by the government or some other public institution, often through taxes. Basic Income as a social service ensures that no one is living in poverty and can meet their needs without needing a job.
Criticisms of Universal Basic Income usually involve cost, feasibility, and that it reduces motivation to work. To counter those points, what is cost when it is necessary to save people from poverty? As automation rises, and with a sustainable economy requiring degrowth, millions of people in the US alone will be without a job, and without the prospect of a job. The idea of “oh, they can learn new skills and move into a new field,” isn't realistic when it's tens of millions of people at a time, and when more and more activities are becoming automated.
Another criticism of Basic Income is that it would cause massive inflation, which is simply untrue. Universal Basic Income isn’t adding millions of dollars into the economy, it is shifting the money that is already in circulation through taxing the higher economic bracket. Basic Income actually helps to enhance the market, by allowing people to pay off their debts, which is a huge economic burden on our society. For more information about the plausibility of Universal Basic Income, I would largely encourage reading Scott Santens’ Wouldn’t Unconditional Basic Income Just Cause Massive Inflation?
Basic Income will help to create financial security for those without jobs, which is one of the bases for happiness since it reduces anxieties about financial instability. With a Universal Basic Income, financial needs can be met without encouraging excess amounts of wealth. Basic
Income also has the added benefit of replacing other social service programs (food stamps, social security, earned income tax credit, etc…).
Another key component of an economy without growth is a population without growth. A constantly growing population requires a growing economy to support the necessity of more jobs. The planet already struggles to support the amount of people here, and for that number to grow, it will have increasingly worse effects on the environment. Through education, empowerment of women, and providing easy accessibility to contraceptives, we can reduce population growth.
There also needs to be products that are made to last. Appliances are made cheaply and don't last as long as they used to.4 Laptops, phones, TVs, and many other everyday household technologies are not made to last because our economy requires people to buy new products every few years. If we made products that can last for a lifetime, then we ultimately use less resources. Imagine the amount of plastic that would be saved if every adult in the US didn't need a new phone every two years.
On the topic of technology, we also need to invest in renewable forms of energy. Technology is not inherently a bad thing, and if all of our technologies can be powered by sustainable resources, then our world would truly be a much cleaner place. Investments into solar and wind energy will help to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels while helping to make the world cleaner.
Planet Earth is our spaceship, and for the time being, it is all we have. As said by Kenneth Boulding in The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, we must move away from the idea of unlimited resources, and move towards a system that recognizes its limits. If we continue along our path of growth, our spaceship will run out of resources to support us, and we will die. It is necessary that we take the steps I have mentioned and move our world towards a more sustainable economy that focuses on the financial security of people while protecting natural resources.
1. Weisman, Aly. "John Travolta's House Is A Functional Airport With 2 Runways For His Private Planes." Business Insider. September 11, 2014.
2. Stone, Madeline. "19 Crazy Facts About Bill Gates' $123 Million Washington Mansion." Business Insider. November 07, 2014.
3. Shen, Lucinda. "Here's How Many Homes the Average Billionaire Now Owns." Fortune. December 2, 2016.