This question haunts everyone who cares about the world our grandchildren will inherit. Older readers will remember how it was just half a century ago — vibrant and thriving. In the post-war economic boom, governments were oblivious to the slippery slope ahead, the warnings of respected ecologists left unheeded. In due course, this generation will pass on, and, like those who fought in the last war, only archived interviews will remain to relate how it used to be — unless the slide is not only stopped but reversed.
From amongst the pervading din of sustaina-babble, two dominant solutions have emerged: one political, the other economic. Radical politicians, desperate to cast their well-worn clichés into the rising tide of public concern, do what they always do — denounce the capitalist, globalist bogeymen. But this is irresponsible and unconstructive, because in doing so they immediately alienate most of the public just when consensus is essential. The economic dystopia they would have adopted is never going to be the solution, as most businesspeople very well know.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that capitalism in its present form is behind the environment crisis, because markets are at the heart of it. Markets have been not just free to trade, but free to pollute, degrade and destroy the natural world. Those involved have remained competitive only because they have not had to factor environmental costs — “externalities” — into their balance sheets. The environment has thus become the casualty of un-environmentally accountable economic activity on an epic scale. Urgent, profound reform is now essential. But stifling the vast energy of capitalist enterprise is not the way. Instead, whereas it has been encouraged to leave a trail of destruction in its wake because it pays to do so, this economic energy needs to be harnessed to benefit the natural world — to profit from doing the right environmental thing rather than the wrong. That’s a whole new economics ballgame, and it’s going to take some radical thinking and careful planning to achieve. For sure, it needs a masterplan; a blueprint. As it happens, there is a tried and proven one out there ready and waiting. It’s called Nature.
To understand this, first consider that, in reality, we humans inhabit an “economic ecosystem” that is a subset of the ecology from which it derived. We are thus economic “species,” fulfilling roles to acquire resources like any in the wild; except that we are “avatars,” able to slip from one role to another. Evolution here is provided by advancing technology, and this has reached breakneck speed; a new “Cambrian Explosion” is under way.
This perspective reveals the underlying problem: Whereas natural ecosystems have evolved over millions of years so that symbiotic species can coevolve to profit from cleaning up after others, creating a balanced and mutually supportive whole, species in our economic system evolve much too fast for it. Their avatar mobility allows them to exhaust and destroy, and then move to another niche to start over. Environmental accountability is absent. However, we have one big advantage: We can influence the system. By acting decisively, we can avoid the deep decline that inevitably overtakes species that degrade their environment.
So how do we make this transformation without sucking energy from the world economy? The answer is that a Nature-based manifesto which does exactly that could be actioned as soon as tomorrow. Capital naturally flows to where profit is, so the key is to shift profitability from “bad” to “good” by charging for external costs, using the proceeds to support greener alternatives, and to fast-track new green technology into the market.
However, this has to come from government, which could take time that we don’t have. Businesspeople can help speed it up, though. There are two main ways to do this. The first is to lobby political representatives, directly or through business groups, to change the dynamics of profitability by adopting the “ecosystem economics” model advocated here. The second is to get ahead of the curve, because that’s what good businesspeople do. Audit supply chains and practices and look for greener ones. Divest from dirty and carbon-expensive investments, supply chains, technology and practices. The writing is on the wall for them anyway. Instead, take financial stakes in promising green technology and services. Clean profits can help usher in the future we owe our children.
There is an exciting green business arena bursting into life out there. Don’t get left behind, or you, too, could end up like the dinosaurs.
Simon Lamb is a writer, businessman, farmer, countryman and passionate conservationist. He has studied evolution, human development and market economics extensively in the context of their combined impact on the natural world and human society. A father, dog-dad and grandfather, Lamb lives in Dorset, England. Junglenomics