Earth is the new bottom line

Yesterday I wrote about air money, and I explained that one reason companies can look more profitable than they are is because our standard accounting practices don’t require them to mention that, oh, by the way, they just destroyed a stream and ruined the health of a community of ten thousand humans and countless critters and microorganisms, and what’s more, they’re not required to pay for the losses. So what’s this talk about economics and externalities doing in a nature and spirituality blog?

It’s talking about nature and spirituality. Because the crisis we’re facing right now, a crisis that looks like it has to do with our financial markets, really has to do with our values, our choices, in how we relate to the natural world. That’s why I was thrilled to see Tom Friedman’s op-ed this week looking at the environmental aspects of the financial crisis:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

Talking ecological economics is talking spirituality because to change our economic direction, we will need to choose different values–counting something more than products and assets in our bottom line. We need to count the Earth as the bottom line because, as Friedman quoted Glenn Prickett, senior vice president at Conservation International, “Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts.”

Does choosing Earth as the bottom line mean we’re going to have to sacrifice our standard of living? No, says Michael D. Lemonick in Scientific American‘s “Top Ten Myths About Sustainability.” But it does mean change:

It does mean that we have to do more with less.

“Doing more with less” means more recycling, more sharing, more cooperating, more interconnected webs of use and reuse. More, in other words, of the values that made nature sustainable for the roughly eleven billion years before humans appeared on the scene.

Friedman is optimistic, and so am I. He says,

For starters, economies need to transition to the concept of net-zero, whereby buildings, cars, factories and homes are designed not only to generate as much energy as they use but to be infinitely recyclable in as many parts as possible. Let’s grow by creating flows rather than plundering more stocks.

Nature operates in flows, and to be sustainable, our economics is going to have to follow suit. It means choosing a different set of values–sustainable values. Earth is the new bottom line.

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2 Responses to Earth is the new bottom line

  1. It’s certainly true that we are all taking a much harder look at how we spend money and how we earn money and trying to figure out ways to make that at least come out even. But, I have to disagree with the idea that this will make people “share” more. History shows us that scarcity makes people turn inward, to protect their own little piece of turf against all comers. Crime rates go up as jobs are lost and people do what they feel they must do so they and their families can get by. Everything I am reading and hearing says that this economic downturn may well spell disaster for developing countries who have just been peeking their heads above survival. I hope your rosier view prevails, but I do not feel optimistic.

  2. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:March 12, 2009 at 9:08 am

    I too don’t think that a new economic reality will “make” people share more. I do think, though, that give-and-take is the most economically sensible response. And that there is plenty of evidence showing that when resources are limited people do choose this option. For instance, I have been a guest in homes and villages that North Americans would call impoverished, and I was astounded by the level of outward-flowing generosity shown by people. Turning inward is not the choice that all or even most people make. In fact, there is evidence that generosity may come harder to affluent people. But this issue I’m raising in the post is different from “scarcity”: it’s the limits of the biosphere and how we take account of them in our economic lives. We can no longer act as if Earth’s resources were infinite. In light of that reality, what are the most sensible choices? I suggest they involve more recycling and repurposing, more cooperating, and more attention to all having enough rather than some having way too much–in other words, practicing the kinds of balances that operate throughout nature.