The chaos generated by the meltdown of the global economic system provides environmentalists and human rights advocates with utopian opportunities to promote a new economic model, which will not only help sustain life on our planet, but actually increase its quality for many.
As world leaders search for creative solutions to restore global equilibrium, the opportunity for recognising the importance of both human and environmental capital has perhaps never been so possible or achievable.
Recognising all three types of capital: financial, environmental and human, will help us to build the equivalent of a balanced three-legged stool . Hopefully, this stool will be more stable than the current one-legged model of financial capital.
Last week the United Nations Environment Program recommended the business world use the global downturn to press ahead with green technologies that will save firms money and help save the planet. It also recommended using micro-finance loans to help developing countries provide sustainable solutions in such places as Bangladesh where small loans have allowed women entrepreneurs to install solar panels and bring electricity to 100,000 homes.
Society has been operating on the belief that if the engines of capitalism are powered to churn constantly, wealth will prevail and all of human society will benefit. But this system has served to create great income disparities by generating incredible wealth and incredible poverty, and has been the main driver in causing catastrophic environmental damage.
The unregulated, trickle-down financial policy is necessary to generate positive GDP figures, but traditionally these data do not include the cost of rainforest or biodiversity loss. Thanks to the United Nations Green Economy Initiative, and the work being undertaken by Pavan Sukhdev and his colleagues who are engaged in the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project, we can now put GDP-like values on these losses.
As a result, we are beginning to recognise that the credit crunch in the financial markets is a minnow in comparison to the credit crunch in our environment and biodiversity systems. It appears that we have been “borrowing” $2.5 trillion every year for the last 25 years without any significant compensating payback.
Over time, we may acquire the wisdom to realise that what traditional economics considers “externalities”, as if they were irrelevant, are closer to our survival needs than the creation of economic wealth. The 90 pence we pay for a litre of petrol is divided between government tax and profit for the oil company, but who picks up the tab for the damage that is done by burning the fuel in the atmosphere? We privatise profit and we socialise loss.
We need to start valuing people first, and then we will collectively begin to operate on the principle that the environment is not just another word for commodity market, but that it supports life. Valuing human capital means acknowledging that each person on this planet is entitled to fresh water, nutritious food, proper shelter, healthcare, education, justice and access to capital. This way we can release the creative potential of all of humanity. Only when we are clear on these values can we create a financial system that serves it.
The current financial credit drivers are akin to the booster rockets on a space craft. In the same way as the boosters blast the craft free of the Earth’s atmosphere and gravitational pull, so the current financial system has created wealth, education and freedom for 1.5 billion people. But for many – the remaining 4.5 billion – the cost has been very great and to our ecosystems it has been disastrous. The skill in a space shot is knowing when to blow the explosive bolts, releasing the boosters and continuing the mission with the second stage only. Our skill will be in jettisoning our current economic model and designing a new and more inclusive “second stage”.
What we should be talking about now at a strategic level is urgently restructuring our monetary system into a non-debt, or minimal-based debt structure using Sharia-type finance and complementary currencies with government spending money directly into circulation.
In whichever way we choose as a society to tackle the global financial crisis, we must create a system that protects and nurtures all of humanity and the environment before it is too late.
An inspirational quote attributed to a North American First Nations Chief Seattle states: “We are all connected like the blood that unites one family. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not create the web of life, but he is part of it, whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
These words written more than one hundred years ago speak directly to us today. Will we have the intelligence to listen?