• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Teaching to a Third Commandment

Get real about the economic system.

November 4, 2014

The economy exists to serve society, not the other way around.  Thus, maintain an economy which is sufficient to provide the goods and services required to support happy, healthy living for all members of society.  And do it in such a manner that the resources consumed by economic activity don't exceed the levels which the planet can supply indefinitely.

This third sustainability commandment consists in two parts -- meet needs, and don't exceed resource supply.  The latter portion is largely a corollary to the first commandment (the one about there being only one planet's worth of planet); the generalities are pretty simple, and the specifics will be detailed in future posts.  But the first part is equally important, and often under-covered in first-world sustainability discussions.  It seems a common assumption that the current world economic system is meeting people's needs pretty well -- certainly, sufficiently -- which implies that students need be taught only about resource constraints.  That simply isn't a valid assumption.

Oh, it's valid enough if you limit your scope of inquiry to "developed" societies, and to the portions of the respective populations which actively participate in those societies.  But it's not valid for the entire population of the planet, and the proportion for which it's invalid seems likely to increase fairly rapidly.

To get a better handle on whether needs are being met, it's only necessary to think about what humans, and human populations, really need to have the potential to flourish.  Nothing particularly revolutionary here.  The traditional list includes food, clothing and shelter, recently amended to add health care and education.  Implicitly included as "food" is potable water.  None of which sets a particularly high bar: nothing about mobility, entertainment, culture, religion, art, fashion, the latest this or the most recently released that.  Pretty much the immutable basics.

But the unavoidable fact is that the current world economy as it currently operates (indeed, as it has operated for centuries) doesn't meet all the basic needs of all the world's people.

  • People go hungry and malnourished every day in the USA, more commonly and for longer periods in other societies.
  • Folks go homeless in every city and county here, and may spend their entire lives homeless (or claiming as a home only a few square feet of barren ground) elsewhere.
  • Potable water -- even access to potable water -- isn't generally guaranteed, continues to be a challenge for many folks (even in the USA), and is increasingly under threat as pollution reduces the amount of potable water available and corporations aggressively buy up large parts of what remains.
  • The availability of competent health care is situational -- guaranteed and generally available in some places, pretty much unheard of in others, available if you can afford it here in the US.
  • Education, in any meaningful sense of that word, is available more narrowly than most of us would like to admit.  On my worse days, I wonder whether real education (as opposed to social conditioning) is generally available even in this country.

We need only consider what happens in US cities when the basics of life aren't reliably available -- property crime, illicit economic activity (aka "vice"), gangs and gang wars.  Then expand that thought experiment to a larger world, look at where violence persists and governments fail, and then imagine the results when societies already only marginally effective come under the additional strains of drought, heat waves, crop failures, wildfires, sea level rise, and all the rest.  Projections have been circulated (if widely ignored) for years about the amount of population displacement that will likely result from climate change.  What hasn't been discussed hardly at all is the level of desperation the displaced populations will exhibit, and the behaviors they'll be willing to engage in as a result.  Not a pretty picture.

If colleges and universities are to educate students in a way consistent with this third commandment, then, we need to be honest in our depiction of the dominant economic system, the fact that it benefits some people and profoundly fails others, and the fact that it (as ideology) pervades our society so profoundly that its real effects are effectively invisible.  We need to graduate students who not only understand how the system works, but also how and why it fails.  Students who see a meaningful difference between growing a business as an end in itself, and growing a business by finding a way to address (profitably, or at least feasibly) some real need of some previously unserved segment of society.

The good news (if I'm right) is that focusing economic attention towards meeting basic needs and away from luxury and exclusivity will make it easier to maintain sufficient levels of productive activity while living within planetary limits.  But that won't happen until and unless we demonstrate to students how necessary it is.


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