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Unfettered Consumerism To Environmental Degradation: The Dilemma Of Ecological Economics

The relationship between environmental quality and income cannot be confidently made until there is a proper understanding of the minor variables which constitute environmental quality

The problem of measurement of environmental quality at any period of time involves an interaction of complex systems and variables, for which extensive information about the exact impact to the environment need to be calculated. Thus the relationship between income and environmental quality might be more complex than it seems, and large assumptions regarding the carrying capacity and the ecological resilience of the system will have to be made. Even though technology has provided us with advanced statistical tools and machines to test econometric models, to see the exact relationship between these complex variables from extrapolated available data, it does so with the assumption of a very unrealistic ceteris parabus.

The relationship between environmental quality and income cannot be confidently made until there is a proper understanding of the minor variables which constitute environmental quality. Thus, there should be an acknowledgment of the “tight coupling” between various planetary thresholds, with the assumption of ceteris parabus laid to rest as no two systems or variables can be measured in isolation (when emulating real-world behavior through models). Even though Arrow does not get into the depths of the constituents and variables of ecological resilience, he does acknowledge the lack of understanding (and perhaps ignorance) of uncertainties brought about by the dynamic effect of changes in ecosystem variables (Arrow citing loosely defined terms such as thresholds, buffering capacity, loss of resilience as such variables) and the need for understanding these ecosystem dynamics, which again requires a confluence and combinations of disciplines to understand.

Again a singular scope through which these terms were explored do not help in providing any sort of framework for sustainable development policies, even though Arrow calls for “a design of economic institutions for human activity, where the right incentives are provided for protecting the resilience of ecological systems”. A new evolution in thought, design and policy framework is required for this radical shift, provided by multidisciplinary thinking.

As renowned environmental lawyer James Gustave Speth has advocated in his lifetime, and through his recent book called “Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability” published during the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, that not only is there a severe limitation to the scope in the way we approach environmentalism today, but also a failure in our systems due to the effects of rampant modern capitalism and unfettered consumerism. The failure also stems from the existence of various people working towards sustainable development, but being limited due to their single dimensional approach, and perhaps individualistic, non-collective, action which gets us further away from a sustainable development rather than towards it.

As he goes on to describe these limitations, he even attempts to provide solutions in the latter half of his book, through historical analogies, metaphors from literature and then broadly describing how one can re-evaluate theories of the market, our perception of growth and approach towards consumption to move towards a just sustainable society. A society “with a post-capitalist green consciousness changing the fundamental dynamics upon which corporations function, towards a socio-political sphere governed by democracy and informed, engaged citizenry”. However, as he himself critiques, even within those who believe themselves to be architects and soldiers of moving towards such a future, there are “hundred shades of green”, leading to unsustainable results in this sphere. As he explains, “There are the insiders lobbying and litigating for environmental causes in Washington and grassroots organizers fighting for environmental justice in their communities. There are corporate greens and anti-globalization activists, greens and consumption-avoiding downshifters, crunchy cons and ecosocialists (at least in Europe). There are environmentalists who work for the government and those who wouldn’t think of it.”

Despite extensive information about various economic and social indicators being freely available and accessible, the growth, GDP or the national income account of countries still is the most commonly used and understood paradigm in measuring human or national progress. As a Professor from my university elucidated in article written a year after the 2008 economic crisis, called Beyond Statistics regarding GDP-centric models for development- the concept of GDP was a part of 1940’s American to track war-time activity. It did not account for socio-demographic cultural changes or environmental degradation, thus highlighting the importance of accounting for our interaction with the ‘natural capital’ while measuring progress or determining an appropriate policy framework and atmosphere (which is normally conducive to primarily GDP-maximizing activities when approached narrow-mindedly).

Even in a Human Development Report by UNDP around twenty years back, economic trends of sustained growth shown by many nations still had various evidence of growth- (i) without increase in employment or employment capacity, (ii) without increase in equality (failure of trickle down-effect), (iii) without increase in capability expansion (as defined by Amartya Sen), (iv) without increase in extension of democracy and empowerment on a grass-root level, (v) with decrease in cultural roots/identity and indigenous knowledge, (vi) with decrease in sustainable distribution of resources (where the conflict in present generations between resources, disables future generations from enjoying its benefits), and most importantly (vii) rampant environmental degradation. When we put this in the framework of the nine planetary thresholds and the eleven areas of social foundation, we can clearly see how most of the policies which boast of their potential in increasing GDP and hence growth, may not have accounted for its potential in leading to what Speth summarizes as ‘jobless, ruthless, fruitless, voiceless, rootless and futureless growth’.

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