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Q&A Andreas Weber: Biokapitaal
Over de relatie tussen milieu en economie heeft Ode in het verleden al vaak geschreven, zoals in een omslagartikel van Tijn Touber uit 2000 en een essay van de Amerikaanse boer Wendell Berry. Onlangs verscheen over dit onderwerp een boek, Biokapitaal: De verzoening van economie, natuur en menselijkheid, geschreven door de Duitse journalist Andreas Weber en uitgegeven door Ankh-Hermes. Het is een intelligent pleidooi om in deze economische crisis weer eens goed te kijken wat er moet veranderen. Hieronder volgt de weergave van onze emailcorrespondentie.
1. You argue that care for the environment is in humanity’s best interest. How is that so? Isn’t environmentalism misanthropic by nature?
The idea you refer to stands at the core of the twin dilemma (or disaster) of growing poverty and vanishing diversity. I would even argue that the opinion that “green means nature, not people” is the major obstacle to relief in both areas. The humanist left, even more ferociously than the conservative right wing, advocated technology and growth to ease the workers’ burden.
One might find an adequate attitude in the age of Marx: Nature’s limits were not so visible (even if present). Scarcity was on the side of commodities, not of natural services. So until today, many philanthropists decide against nature, but in favor of “employment.” On the other hand, the ecologists had the idea that we must preserve nature and put it away from the destructive influence of man. From there the tendency to create preserves with limited access.
All this stems from the failure to conceive of the biosphere as the only household there is on earth. Economists—neoliberals and marxists alike—conceived of the market as something isolated from nature. But as we know now, the market is directly affected by nature (climate change, deforestation making poor developing countries all the poorer). It depends on nature’s functioning. The picture only becomes clear if you stop to think of humans and other beings as completely—that is, not only physically, but metaphysically—separated. We then see that the one big economy is the ecology. Our market is only a subclass of that. Man is one species within its own share in the global ecology—a share which is, at present, rather large.
To understand that more clearly you can do what many “ecological economists” (Joshua Farley, Robert Costanza, Gretchen Ehrlich and others) do: You can try to understand the whole biosphere as a gigantic corporation and calculate its accounts. You will rather quickly realize that most of the commodities humans use (e.g., air to breathe, water to drink, fish to eat, fruits from insect pollination, medicals from plants, crops from soil provided by bacteria, rain, climate stability...) are provided by nature, not by man. The “Gross Natural Product” derived that way dwarfs the human GDP by several orders of magnitude.
Additionally, we are simply dependent on “natural services” for existence. This is no abstract calculation, even if it seems like that. If you look at poor developing countries, you most often find that devastation or nature and poverty coincide (e.g. Ethiopia, Madagascar and Haiti have virtually no natural forest cover left). If you compare net ecosystem values and economical benefit that are derived the corporate way, you nearly always find that natural systems yield 4-10 fold more economic benefits. A good example is shrimp farming in Southeast Asian mangroves: There you have nearly fivefold more income by natural processes than by corporate exploitation.
Natural benefits also nearly always go to the local people. Hence, we can say that in understanding the biosphere as the actual market, we not only see that it’s natural part in the market is much bigger than the human one, but we also realize that the market is part of our lives. It is not some commodity you can privatize. It is us. We have to understand our global eco-economy as one big commons. And if we go that way, we also find ways to economically interact with nature that are neither capitalist nor communist, that are not growth, but maintenance-oriented (“steady-state,” as Herman Daly would have it). We can learn a lot from these precursor systems about how to integrate the biosphere into our economical thinking. In more nature-based societies there are many surprising solutions for commonly managing resources, thereby caring for them and even making them more productive.
There is one other important point related to the term “interest” in your question. At the moment people–the politicians, the economists, the banks, the stock markets–learn from the media that what is actually in their interest is growth. If you have growth, than you have more (the rich have more more, but the poor should have, in theory at least, and by some trickle-down, also a little more of everything). It is assumed as self-evident that humans always want more.
The silent model of human nature nowadays is homo oeconomicus, an artificial construct that always wants to maximize utility. Homo oeconomicus has no feelings, no social bonds, no biological body and hence no natural bonds. It is interesting that the humanities and also the sciences have renounced trying to define human nature, and that in the vacuum brought forth by that lack of interest we have now the pure economical idea of man as utility-maximization.
But more does not make more happiness. If you look at surveys of human happiness, you can see that despite nearly a fivefold increase of the world GDP since 1945, we do not observe an equal increase of happiness. Instead, at least in the west, people become less happy. This is statistically evident. As long as a person (or their near relatives and friends) is not acutely starving, menaced by violence etc., happiness is not related to income. Today more Massai warriors, who possess nearly nothing, call themselves “very happy” in contrast to U.S. Americans.
Just as you can prove statistically that we have not become happier in destroying so much nature, you can prove what we do need, if we do not need growth. The Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef has done a very good job defining these human needs. We see that we need stable social bonds and also stable natural bonds. Many surveys show that the presence of nature is the most important health factor overall. This is no surprise, by the way. Man is a biological species that has developed with nature for millions of years. We are nature, e.g. we consist of a lot of endosymbionts, which make up 90% of our genes, actually. We cannot think of ourselves as separated from the remainder of life in the first place, neither economically nor psychologically. The idea of an only-human market is as wrong as the idea of human happiness without other beings.
We should invent a broader picture of human-in-nature as a measure for future politics. We should put a “politics of life” to the forefront, hence overcoming the dualist separation into left humanists and anti-social ecologists. In my eyes only such a marriage can bring fresh dynamics into both camps. We have to see that true humanism conceives of man as social-body-soul-in-nature. A movement that writes that new idea on its agenda could have as much impact globally as the abolitionist movement once had. Like the abolitionist movement, it could start a political battle based on a new worldview, not merely on different stakes of distribution of human-only goods.
2. What are the elements of the humanistic economy you advocate?
The main difference from the current growth economy is that growth–regardless of what–is no longer the goal. Instead, we could develop a more ecosystemic idea of integrated balance. Remember that “growth” already is a quasi-biological concept that was created in the Victorian heyday when Malthusian economics, white supremacy thinking, Christian redemption and the biological idea of an ever optimizing tree-of-life were cross-fertilizing. (As it is, Malthus, the political economist, was one of the main inspirations for Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest, and this, in turn, gave new inspiration for economic thinking (e.g. Jevons and Walras). We still erroneously believe that nature is efficient, ever-optimizing, and therefore an economical growth model. But it is not. Think of the poor yield of photosynthesis or the millions of cod larvae per female necessary only to grant standing stock. We think of nature–and of economy–as an ever-growing efficiency machine. Yet nature is not even growing, throughput-wise. It is, however, deepening, creating ever more relations of connectedness.
I hence propose a more realistic economical thinking that orients more on ecological truth than current thinking does. We need a better goal than growth. This could be something like ”biospheric goodness.” An example of an activity that improves biospheric goodness is organic farming. It often enhances the quality of the land instead of diminishing it. People working in it feel more at home. It brings neighbors closer to one another. It makes local areas less anonymous. In farmer’s markets people speak to one another ten times more than in supermarkets.
The political goal, in my eyes, is to set the economic drivers in that direction. That doesn’t means saying goodbye to the free market, but to put the constraints right. (A central question is whether we can do that with the current interest system, or, if we should first find a way to get rid of that, then how?) By constraints I mean any system of giving the market new borders. The first step, simple as it is, would be to get the prices right: seeing where there are hidden subsidies going in the wrong direction, determining the true costs of our economic activities and than calculating them adequately.
At the moment most people are convinced that the market cannot efficiently allocate streams of commodities and that is also not able to determine its own size and to decide whether it is functioning justly or unjustly. This is certainly an error. The market is a self-organizing mechanism within boundaries and due to fail when there are no such boundaries. Joseph Stiglitz has proven this economically. We can also witness epic market failures after privatization of water markets. In that case, a higher rate of environmental destruction and social exclusion leading to poverty and illness go hand in hand.
In my eyes we do not need a lot of change on the political or bureauratical level. We do not need a new “system.” We do need some real change at the level of allocations, taxes, subsidies, and financial trade. I am rather open to any of those means as they all have their pros and cons. We should, however, say goodbye to the money-generating engine of the financial markets. This could also work automatically by the self-organizing scrutiny of our new “pro-life” constraints, as financial markets nowhere are “biospherically” sound.
What is needed could emphatically be called a “Green New Deal”—or rather the “real Green New Deal.” What is necessary does not consist of more green efficiency (nor of opening markets for new Lohas and other hedonists-only) but of a revision of economy as the household of the living sphere.
3. How can such a humanistic economy get a good start?
As we are experimenting with a rather profound change in our overall attitudes to the household of life (including our own, physical and psychological), some space for trial and error is needed. I propose a threefold strategy.
First we have to open the conceptual and theoretical-political possibilities concerning the feasibility of a green economy. That is what I am concerned with, and also what the emerging new discussion about Commons tends to do, thanks to Elinor Ostrom who received the economy Nobel.
Then we should seek to ground what we are doing in a truly new politics of life. We have to introduce the new eco-economy to the people as a political project. We should make clear that this new politics of life exclusively includes a more adequate model of man.
And third, we really need some regions where we can apply all those ideas without the danger of damaging a whole national economy (since the transition away from growth economy is not built into a growth economy it is not easy). We should probably save that vision for regions that no longer profit from the old growth-economy, like many rural regions in Europe do. There is depopulation and abandonment in rural Europe, but also in the U.S. (the new frontier), and certainly in developing countries. There are some regions weakly beginning to take such steps. For example, the Indian province of Aruchanal Pradesh has initiated a triple account system for its household calculating forest and biodiversity loss. Many incentives of that kind have proven that the only means of economical resurrection for those lost regions consists in inventing the third way of a biospheric economy.
Societies could have used the global financial crisis for such a rebirth, but that chance has been tragically lost. Governments decided to invest massively in premiums to save the old growth model by buying new cars etc. when we could have used the money to start the transition to a biospheric economy by offering subsidies to those who comply to a set of new rules and by setting taxes for those who do not.
(For all those who tend to think that subsidies should be banned completely: I am sympathetic with that attitude. But let us not forget the tacit subsidies paid through loss of ecosystem services to companies using common resources as the atmosphere is polluted by air carriers who are not charged with taxes on fuel). At the moment, given the way the market assumes the biosphere is free, any market activity is already massively, but invisibly, subsidized far beyond its economical soundness.
4. What exactly will change, for business, politics and society, if we change the economy in the ways you propose?
If we set the drivers to biospheric goodness, we would automatically see a prospering of more localized, smaller, more varied economies that run with renewable energy and feed on biological farm products. At the same time, this would mean more satisfaction for people. It is paradoxical that we can statistically witness that people living in smaller and more interconnected communities are happier – yet most people (at least in the West), apart from some social pioneers, are afraid to take a step in that direction.
We would rather immediately see a shift from industrial agriculture to organic farming. At the moment we produce one pound of food with five barrels of oil. If we put all the silent costs of oil (carbon warming, military, road maintenance, chemical pollution, oceans...) into the price it would become clear that biofarming is much more economical sound. It also yields more food per acre (but, under the current system, not more dollars). As leading officials of the most important global agricultural organizations (like FAO...) unanimously stated in May 2008, only a shift to global bioagriculture can defeat world hunger, not a massive technological offensive. Ecologists believe that if humanity globally shifted to bioculture, the major stresses on terrestrial ecosystems would be held back. So we had a first massive stepping-stone for change.
Business would change in that it would be more concerned with localized circles of real products, and less with games and bets in the world financial markets. The connection of production and stock and derivative markets, however, is the major obstacle to any change. Many people in powerful positions are earning tons of money from the way that the status quo shifts money away from natural services–thereby destroying them–to private persons–thereby generating ever fewer ever richer people and more poverty.
There would be a strong dynamic of innovation on the small-industry-green level since there’s lots of incentive here. This is the major reason why it could be profitable for a region or a nation to start the transition right now, since classical throughput-growth will be more and more difficult in the coming decades. As I observed in the beginning, the planet, which is the only household for all of us, is finite. There is no space to grow endlessly, nor the raw materials from which to grow. The day of an overall depletion will not be tomorrow, but it will be soon. It will not come abruptly, but disguised in a revival of more openly human-centered forms of exploitation (compared to the more hidden one, at the moment, at least for us Westerners). In my eyes the only way to act in an economically sound way is to start the biospherical transition of the economy now.
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