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Markus Stocker

Between information technology and environmental science with a flair for economics, the clarinet, and the world of soups and salads.

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According to Tim Jackson [1], and others, beyond a certain income rising GDP per capita is no reasonable proxy for rising prosperity, because once basic needs such as for food, shelter, security, education, health are met, prosperity correlates with the “ability to flourish” as human beings – i.e. the strength of our relationships, trust in the community, satisfaction at work, shared sense of purpose, participation in society – rather than with income. Obviously, we assume, correctly, that income does not correlate with, for instance, the strength of our relationships. Indeed, meaningful relationships are not marketable: we cannot buy them. This argument is used to demand by the conventional view of ‘indefinite economic growth’ – held by many economists and politicians – to face two realities: (1) the ecological limits of a finite planet and (2) the drift of global wealth towards the few.

No matter on what side of the debate one may be, the Earth’s ecological limits are not a matter of debate, even though after T.R. Malthus, the Club of Rome, and others it is ever more clear that the estimates for those limits with respect to our species come with considerable uncertainty. If and when we hit those limits is, hence, a matter of debate. Similarly, the ethics of the disparity between the world’s rich and the world’s poor is, obviously, debated. In fact, though many may argue that inequality is “unfair” it is probably safe to assume that few of the richest 20% are willing, or able, to trade their wealth for “fairness” to the extent to which it is necessary to significantly reduce inequality. The same can be observed with respect to the environment. Most may agree that something needs to be done, and anything goes as long as it doesn’t touch my wallet. That solutions to the problems of ecological limits and of fair global wealth distribution would somehow come without a price tag to us 20% is, I’m afraid, wish thinking.

I think there has been a fair amount of discussion on identifying what has “gone wrong” with respect to global justice and the environment. Probably even the most fervent technology-optimists begin to wonder about the consequences at the prospects of China, India, and Africa gradually achieving the level of affluence expected in the OECD nations, an economy that would have to be 15 times the size of today’s economy by 2050 [1] or, in other words, an economy that supports 72 billion people at present consumption rates. Something needs to be done, we sense that. Much has also been discussed about what could be done. Instead, what it precisely entails for us 20% rich, i.e. those who would face the biggest cuts and those who predominantly drive the academic discussions, has been discussed far less, if at all.

What it entails for us 20% rich is politically so unpalatable that we intuitively know no democracy is going to vote for, or keep in office, politicians that would force upon a nation’s people the severe cuts that ecological limits and fair global wealth distribution truly entail. Just look at what happens when governments on the verge of bankruptcy announce austerity measures: people riot, new governments are formed. Whether or not one thinks those austerity measures are necessary, they still are for – the, current or future, advantage or disadvantage of – the people of a nation. Imagine the reaction if austerity would be forced upon the people of a nation for the sake of the global environment, or the world’s poor.

Unless we 20% rich wake up one morning and, miraculously, equally value the global environment and the global poor’s welfare I am, currently, of the opinion that it is only through a semi-totalitarian global government – which imposes (1) regulation upon national economies to keep the aggregated world economy within ecological limits (assuming we can define those) and (2) regulation to globally transfer wealth such that “everybody” has employment and a minimum wage, similar security, health care, education, social safety nets, etc. – that we might achieve the dramatic changes that ecological limits and egalitarian access to global wealth entail. Such regulation would not just come with a staggering price tag to the 20% rich but it would dramatically reduce the democratic freedoms that the 20% rich have been enjoying in historically unprecedented ways since the end of World War II.

I don’t believe there is an easy exit strategy when it comes to the issues discussed here. Our current freedom will be reduced if and when the music of the party ends, either by a world government, which likely won’t be democratically legitimate, or by nature, if and when we overshoot. I do not underestimate the impact that groundbreaking discoveries and technology will have in delaying the stop of the music but I’m skeptical that we will manage to decouple our economic activity from resource input and waste output sufficiently to lift 80% of humanity to the level of the 20% richest, or, to echo a currently popular slogan, 99% to the level of the 1% richest.

[1] Tim Jackson. Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. ISBN 978-1-84407-894-3.