Economists Who Say the Planet Has Infinite Resources Are Today’s Flat Earth Society

OP-ED: This article is presented as part of New Economy Week, five days of conversation around building an economy that works for everyone. Today’s theme is “Expanding How We Think About What’s Possible.”

Photo by Shutterstock.

What is the core, the essential nub of the new economy movement that should be central to all of our messaging? I think it’s the clear, simple idea that our planet is finite and therefore it can’t long support an economy designed for an infinite one.

The old, infinite-planet, infinite-growth economy has met its limits and must change.

Infinite planet thinking has a long pedigree: from John Locke toward the end of the 17th century to Adam Smith in the middle of the 18th, the planet seemed capable of supporting expansion of the human estate for untold generations to come. In their world, vast reaches of the globe had yet to be mapped by Europeans. Humans everywhere were relatively scarce, their powers not yet global in scale, not yet amplified by extraordinary energies of coal and oil.

The 7 billion of us who are alive today live on a different planet. We need a new economy suited to the planet we have, not the one economists thought we had 200 years ago. We need an economy respectful of  the notion that there are ecological limits to economic activity.

But the new economy movement is about more than ecological sanity. We seek other practical and desirable outcomes, like:

  • a living wage for workers;
  • a more equitable distribution of the fruits of production;
  • a diminution of the political influence of corporations and the exceedingly rich; and,
  • a relocalization and reduction in the scale of economic activity that will bring production into better relation with workers, customers, neighbors, and the planet.

We seek, in a word, economic justice.

That seems a very different goal than sustainability. But it isn’t, and conservatives recognize that the two goals are interrelated. The remedy they offer for economic injustice is the remedy they offer for environmental problems: more economic growth. Only if we are wealthier, their argument goes, will we be able to afford environmental reforms or solve the problem of poverty.

On a finite planet, an economy eventually encounters the source-and-sink limits of ecosystems.

The new economy movement must show—must insist—that the attempt to solve our ecological and social crises through economic growth is a fool’s task, because both crises have a common cause: an infinite-planet, perpetual-growth economy has met the limits of a finite planet.

When a financial system designed for infinite growth hits a local or planetary limit, it becomes a pump that sucks money from those who have less and then gives it to those who have more. On a finite planet, a perpetual-growth economy eventually encounters the source-and-sink limits of ecosystems, either transgressing them and causing species loss, climate change, and ecosystem failure, or crashing because the limit can’t physically be broken.

On a finite planet, population growth degrades our quality of life, further increases our economy’s ecological footprint, encourages technocracy, and produces an oversupply of labor that drives down wages, diminishing the middle class and dividing us into rich and poor, captains and serfs. The full range of new economy initiatives can be presented as stemming from one central fact: The old, infinite-planet, infinite-growth economy has met its limits and must change.

With repeated and creative messaging, the phrase “infinite planet thinker” will come to sound as outmoded and ridiculous as “flat earth theorist.” And when that happens, the principles and programs that the new economy movement seeks to advance will be on their way to general acceptance.

Eric Zencey is a Fellow of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, where he is Associate Research Professor of Political Science.  He also teaches in the graduate Architecture and Urban Planning programs at Washington University in St. Louis.  His most recent book is The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy.

This post was written for the New Economy Coalition's second annual New Economy Week, an event exploring what it will take to build an economy that works for people, place, and planet. To learn more, visit New Economy Week.

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My Cousin Was Shot Dead by a Police Officer. Here’s What It Means for the New Economy Movement

This article is presented as part of New Economy Week, five days of conversation around building an economy that works for everyone. Today’s theme is “Expanding how we think about what’s possible.”

Charles Goodridge with his daughter, Shaniqua. Photo courtesy of the author.

My cousin, Charles Goodridge, was one of many unarmed black men killed by police this past summer. Black communities across the country have mobilized in response to this spate of high profile police killings.

Much of the recent organizing and activism has rightfully focused on the destructive role of police in the black community. But as my cousin’s and other victims’ stories reveal, fighting to eradicate racist policing is not enough—as long as a racist economy is left intact.

An economy that did not lead to concentrated poverty and racial segregation could have prevented this deadly altercation.

On July 9, Charles was shot and killed by a police officer in Harris County, Texas. According to police, Charles had been evicted from his apartment but was spotted in one of the building’s common areas by Francisco Ruiz, an off-duty police officer who lived in the complex and was working a second job as a security guard. Ruiz got his gun and handcuffs from his own apartment and tried to arrest Charles for trespassing. Charles resisted and fled, but Ruiz caught him and shot him twice in the stomach.

I believe that if Charles had been white, the officer who killed him would not have been so quick to arrest or shoot him. But before he was a victim of racist policing, Charles was a victim of a racist economy.

Photo courtesy of the author.

In 2009, at the height of the recession, Charles was forced to resign from Hewlett-Packard—his employer since 1995—after he filed a racial discrimination suit against the company. People of all colors struggled to find work during the recession, but the labor market was especially brutal for blacks. Charles was never able to find steady employment again. His savings evaporated and he lost his apartment.

Though he had once been a resident of the building where he was killed, economic devastation turned him into a trespasser. If it weren’t for a racist economy, my cousin would likely still be alive.

Charles’ case is not isolated. Economic woes have precipitated other recent police killings of unarmed black men. In New York City, police killed Eric Garner as they tried to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes. He had been arrested dozens of times before for petty, nonviolent crimes committed while trying to survive. If Garner had access to other economic options, he probably wouldn’t have been selling “loosies” in the first place.

In Ferguson, Mo., Michael Brown seems to have been stopped for no reason other than being a young black man in a low-income, black community. Generations of economic marginalization and discriminatory housing policies led to him living in a neighborhood where police patrols were frequent and heavy-handed. An economy that did not lead to concentrated poverty and racial segregation could have prevented this deadly altercation as well.

Michael Brown’s death could spark the growth of community banks that help build black wealth.

The new economy movement has taken on the ambitious goal of unifying many communities and struggles by finding common ground and identifying shared goals. For example, much work has been done in the last decade to unite the historically white and wealthy environmental movement with “frontline communities”—those most affected by climate change—which are home to a disproportionate number of poor people of color. Just last month, that work resulted in frontline communities leading the People’s Climate March in New York City.

Yet, while economic oppression and violent policing go hand-in-hand, the struggles against them have, thus far, been largely isolated from each other.

In an article headlined “What’s the Role of Race in the New Economy Movement? ” Penn Loh suggested that those building a new economy “need to support and ally with the leadership and initiatives for economic transformation already underway in communities of color.”

I would take Loh’s suggestion a step further and point out that not all the potential collaborations between the new economy movement and racial justice struggles are concerned with explicitly “economic” issues. Eric Garner’s death could inspire a network of co-ops that employ people like him and help them avoid livelihoods that increase their contact with police. Michael Brown’s death could spark the growth of community banks that help build black wealth and reduce the type of concentrated poverty that is often the backdrop for violent altercations with police. And Charles Goodridge’s death could present a new angle to push for corporate accountability.

There are many opportunities to bridge the divide between the two movements. Those working to create a new economy must recognize these opportunities and strive to create systems that serve communities of all colors.

Anand Jahi has worked as an organizer, activist, and mentor. He is currently a Masters in Public Affairs Candidate at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Read more from Anand at www.reignfall.net.

This post was written for the New Economy Coalition’s second annual New Economy Week, an event exploring what it will take to build an economy that works for people, place, and planet. To learn more, visit New Economy Week.

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What Housing Organizers in Buffalo Learned from the ’70s

This article is presented as part of New Economy Week, five days of conversation around building an economy that works for everyone. Today’s theme is “The New Economy Isn’t New.”

Luis Nieves (right) helps Michael Raleigh (left) secure floorboards in Raleigh's front porch. Raleigh is renovating a house on Buffalo's East Side that he purchased from the city for $1 through the Urban Homestead program. Photo by Mark Boyer.

We can learn a lot about what it takes to build a new economy by looking into the hidden histories of localism and cooperative economics in our own cities. And one of the clearest lessons that history offers us is that the most successful organizations of the past few decades managed to develop structures and systems that allowed them to grow while holding true to the core values of participatory democracy and community rootedness that animate them.

Here in Buffalo, the foundations of our current movement were laid in the 1970s, when our co-op movement created new bakeries, restaurants, retail stores, and credit unions. Some of these efforts were connected to anti-corporate organizing—like a broad effort to hold the big gas utility accountable and to develop energy cooperatives.

The movement for community control and cooperative economics in Buffalo blossomed as student organizers who had led resistance movements at SUNY Buffalo in the late ’60s entered their post-collegiate lives, settling in neighborhoods like University Heights and Allentown. The movement also took hold in the city's African-American community on the East Side, where a rooted and radical consciousness was expressed in a range of new community gardens, consumer co-ops, cultural institutions, and community-controlled schools like BUILD and CAUSE.

What we see when we study our own histories are friends and neighbors committed to democratic values, working like mad to live them out and experimenting at every step. As a ’70s baby, I caught the tail end of this generative phase and I can say for sure that one of its greatest achievements was in the realm of higher consciousness, of building a culture apart from consumerism that valued the wonder and discovery of childhood, of art and music and food and everything else that makes us human.

Part of our work at People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) is about honoring the elders who instilled this spirit of humanism and openness. Our board chair, Maxine Murphy, is a veteran of the Civil Rights movement who has taught us a lot about the  tradition of self-sufficiency and localism that ran through the Deep South of her childhood. It’s her vision, along with that of our membership, that motivated us to create our Green Development Zone, where we've boosted energy security through renewables and energy efficiency, repaired food systems (in partnership with the Massachusetts Avenue Project), and built a community economy of local entrepreneurs our guiding objectives.

One question to consider when thinking about how to expand our contemporary new economy movement is that of institutionalization. Why did some of the cooperative institutions built in the ’70s—especially food co-ops—get to scale and thrive in subsequent decades, while others faded away?

We can explain of lot of this with market dynamics—food co-ops catered to emerging tastes for healthier food that big corporate food bureaucracies were clueless about. But it also had a lot to do with governance, structure, accountability, and ethos. Movement institutions that depended on inhumane commitments of time and labor or that had dysfunctional management cultures obviously had a hard time moving into the future.

For us at PUSH, the new economy rises out of the natural networks and affinities that are inherent to families and neighborhoods. Those relationships are where we can build a culture of community control and of critical consciousness.

There’s an interplay between that consciousness and the material realities—of having a say over all of the commodities we need to survive: food, housing, energy, health care, and the like. We need to bring all of those things back home, to make them part of our culture and to be producers of our essentials wherever possible.

At PUSH, we call the organization that is at the hub of all this a “community anchor institution,” guided by ideals of radical democracy and rooted in the needs and desires of people at the grass roots. An anchor that produces real wealth and power for the community has to be structured enough to get to scale and compete with the market in sectors like food and energy, while never wavering in its commitment to community-driven planning and a culture of openness.

 

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Aaron Bartley is the co-founder of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo), which has won international recognition for its Green Development Zone, a synthesis of community organizing and development.

This post was written for the New Economy Coalition's second annual New Economy Week, an event exploring what it will take to build an economy that works for people, place, and planet. To learn more, visit New Economy Week.

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With an Economy that Worked for All, Mike Brown Would Still Be Alive

This article is presented as part of New Economy Week, five days of conversation around building an economy that works for everyone. Today’s theme is “The New Economy Isn’t New.”

 

McDonald’s workers on strike in July 2013 in St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Cathy Sherwin / Flickr.

The Southern Grassroots Economies Project, a network of organizations that build cooperative economic institutions in the southeastern United States, just completed its fourth CoopEcon—a training institute for cooperative members. The following is excerpted from the dedication of that gathering:

We dedicate this gathering to Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and the many other victims of police and other racist violence; we honor the heroic people of Ferguson, Mo., and the countless ordinary people in communities across the country who know a change must come and are willing to participate in creating that change.

Self-reliance carries with it a level of independence that frightens the powers that be.

We dedicate this gathering to the people of Appalachia who see the tops blown off their mountains and their streams poisoned. They watch as their children get cancer at high rates. Their beautiful homeland is sacrificed to the greed of the coal companies, then abandoned when there is little profit left to extract. We honor those who organize and resist this devastation.

We dedicate this gathering to the neighborhoods that grocery stores, seeking higher profits, left years ago, making it difficult to find fresh fruits or meats or vegetables. We honor those who have decided to do something about it and, with technical and financial help, build the stores they need.

CoopEcon honors these individuals and communities by helping them to make a change. CoopEcon is about changing the world, at first one neighborhood, one grocery store, one mountaintop at a time—but soon, all at once.

None of us can know what will happen in the next few years. We can’t predict when millions of people will be drawn into action by some event—a catastrophe, perhaps—some situation that cannot be ignored. We can't gaze into a crystal ball and foretell the future. But we can prepare for it.

We do this by working to build a sustainable economy that meets peoples’ needs, while learning and teaching the skills and building the organizations that will scale up to improve the lives of many more people in the future. Our full humanity is expressed only when we have the capacity and the opportunity to be productive, to do for ourselves, meeting our needs in our communities.

For many of us, that means working in the South.

The South is our home. It is often neglected, misunderstood, misrepresented, and underestimated. We know its history and its potential. We know that those who see us as a source for their unquenchable thirst for profit have no need for many of us. They do not want us to be capable of doing for ourselves. As it was the case of the black landowners who were a foundation of the Civil Rights struggle, self-reliance carries with it a level of independence and confidence that frightens the powers that be. Meanwhile, it gives us great courage. This is the South that we want.

The world in which Michael Brown would still be alive is a world we have yet to create.

We live in a world of contradictions and disparity. There are islands of great wealth and privilege in an ocean of poverty and despair. The concentration of power and wealth among the wealthy few leads to ecological, social, and economic devastation for the many. There are some of us, like Mike Brown, that the wealthy and powerful have no place for. They just want us “off the street, on the sidewalk”—if there is a sidewalk.

And if we are defiant, if we refuse to move out of the way, if we refuse to become invisible, if we refuse to stop being inconvenient, if we assert our humanity instead, demanding to be noticed, refusing to comply, then we might be summarily executed—like Mike Brown, left lying in the street as a sign to others that we must obey.

But many young people still refuse. These young people who refuse to do as they are told are our only hope. Those who passively seek to comply with all authority are accepting their own dehumanization and becoming agents of the dominant power.

The world in which Michael Brown would still be alive is a world we have yet to create. It is a world in which people are valued, not as a means to an end, but as ends in themselves.

 

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Ed Whitfield wrote this article for New Economy Week, a collaboration between the New Economy Coalition and YES! Magazine. Ed is the co-managing director of the Fund for Democratic Communities.

This post was written for the New Economy Coalition's second annual New Economy Week, an event exploring what it will take to build an economy that works for people, place, and planet. To learn more, visit New Economy Week.

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Day 1 of New Economy Week: The New Economy Isn’t New

This article was produced in partnership with the New Economy Coalition as part of the 2014 New Economy Week. Each day this week, YES! will publish articles responding to different topic prompts. Click here for more info.

A vigil for Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Photo by Sarah Ji / Flickr.

Prompt 1: The new economy isn't new.

Let’s get this out of the way at the start: There’s nothing really new in the “new economy.” Ideas like cooperative economics, ecological justice, horizontal democracy, and the commons are ideas with a rich history—especially in the places most deeply affected by pollution, poverty, and racism. Those who have suffered the most at the hands of an unfair economy are the most experienced at imagining and building alternative futures. How can we honor that as we build a broad-based social movement to transform our economy?

Our feature articles provide some insight:

For more perspectives, visit the New Economy Coalition.

Want more? Here's a sampling of articles we’ve published at YES! related to this topic:

 

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This project is a collaboration between the New Economy Coalition and YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.

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