Autistic children can
spend much of their time in a world of elaborate fantasy, emotionally
detached from real people and objects. Unfortunately, it is not
much of a leap to substitute the words "most economists"
for "autistic children" in the previous sentence. So apparent
has this become that there is a
burgeoning movement to establish what is now called a "post-autistic
economics" to meet the challenges of describing the real
social and physical world we live in.
This wouldn't matter much were it not for the
inordinate say that economists have in shaping public policy of
all kinds and at all levels. Those of the post-autistic persuasion
say that establishment economists have become a priestly class
of sorts that enforces its neoclassical
view on any and all who would dissent. It does this by
keeping them off college faculties and out of key policy positions.
But as the biosphere presses its limits upon
us in the areas of energy, climate, water, soil and pollution,
the neoclassical economic view that human ingenuity will allow
the species to ignore every other species on the planet and grow
the world economy indefinitely has become life threatening, even
The cure for this view was suggested by a dear
friend. It is a surprisingly simple move, and one with an impressive
pedigree. The Polish astronomer Nicolaus
Copernicus was the first to work out how the Earth revolved
around the Sun. He thus began a journey for humankind that removed
it from the center of the universe and placed it, to borrow the
words of environmental education giant David Orr, "on a small
planet attached to an insignificant star in a backwater galaxy."
What Copernicus had done for astronomy, Charles
Darwin did for biology. After Darwin humans would no longer
be set apart from the animal kingdom. Henceforth, they would be
only one of its many inhabitants, buffeted by the same laws of
mutation and natural selection as the ape and every other living
in biology was finished.
It is now time--long past time--for a Copernican/Darwinian
revolution in economics in which humans cease to be seen as the
privileged species, homo economicus--at the center of everything
and exempt from the limits of the biosphere. Instead, humans need
to be placed within the same systems that nourish every plant
and animal on Earth. In this case, however, there is a twist.
Far from having to realize how insignificant and unexceptional
we are, we must come to understand that we have evolved into a
different species which William
Catton Jr. has dubbed "homo colossus," a man-tool
hybrid capable of destroying the very habitat that sustains us
and so many other creatures.
The simple fact is that the economy cannot become
bigger than the biosphere. (There are, of course, some believers
in Star Trek-style fantasies who envision us exploiting and living
on other planets. To such people may I suggest that they get started
on this project right away since we are running out of time to
turn things around here on Earth.) Humans
already consume at least 40 percent of the photosynthetic product
of the Earth each year and, that's an estimate from 1986 when
the population was 5.5 billion. Now it is 6.5 billion. And it's
projected to be close to 9 billion by 2050. Could we increase
our share of the world's photosynthetic product to 60 percent
as the 2050 projection implies and still survive? Would we wipe
out species upon whom we depend, but of which we currently know
nothing? Even if we could transition away from finite fossil fuels,
would finding a theoretical, but as yet unknown, unlimited and
pollutionless energy source really solve our problems? Or would
it simply cause us to bump up against other limits?
When you undergo the Copernican/Darwinian revolution
in economics, you cannot avoid such questions. The physical world
and its limits must be accounted for. To that end some researchers
are proposing a comprehensive biophysical economics. One outline
of an approach to such a problem can be found in an article entitled
Need to Reintegrate the Natural Sciences with Economics."
The field of study now known as ecological
economics has been working on the problem in a piecemeal fashion
for a long time. But even though a comprehensive biophysical economics
may never be possible--since it would require understanding everything
about the natural world--we must attempt the feat for two reasons:
1) to expose the dire peril in which neoclassical economics has
placed us and 2) to suggest ways to build an economy that can
operate indefinitely on the Earth and not one that only functions
until it destroys the Earth's capacity to sustain us.
The French writer François-René
de Chateaubriand is reputed to have said, "Forests
precede civilizations and deserts follow them." It is
to this problem that economists must now turn themselves.