Michael McIntyre’s three ways to save the planet

Michael McIntyre and Steven Murphy of Carleton University and Bernard Funston of Northern Canada Consulting in Ottawa, and Canada, suggest that the resources required to sustain human life are being degraded perhaps to the point of no return. They suggest that now is the time for collective action; we must take a long, hard look at the notion of economic growth and development, and re-examine humanity’s choices that encompass a fundamental shift in how we measure economic success, productivity and human happiness.

Given the West’s propensity to measure success in terms of economic growth, we seem to have produced a political environment that has a zero-tolerance for slow or negative growth. We somehow imagine that only with growth will our world, our nations, and our citizens be happy. And yet rising pollution levels, environmental degradation, resource depletion, industrial disasters and the failure of financiers seems to be plunging us into a quagmire of misery. If we consider the Earth to be a closed system in terms of materials (rather than energy), then thermodynamically endless growth was always destined to be something of an oxymoron.

Some observers have suggested that given the recent decrease in family sizes across the globe, the human population will top out at about 10 billion by 2050 or thereabouts. That is still a lot of people. We have a mere 7 billion today and many struggle with disease, poverty, malnutrition and unclean water. McIntyre and colleagues emphasise that the notion of economic growth “seems to be fuelled by a deep-seated acceptance in many societies of the idea that personal and social welfare should improve indefinitely, and that [global] gross domestic product (GDP) should grow to support this.” They point out that some people still believe that endless economic growth is not fundamentally at odds with the natural world, but their analysis to be published in the International Journal of Business Governance and Ethics leads them to doubt that this is true. In fact they posit the idea of a growth-equity frontier that amounts to a boundary on the combination of economic growth on hand, and equalization of GDP per capita across individuals on the other, that the planet can support.

The idea of a boundary on the growth-equity frontier leads them to offer three suggestions as to how we might rebalance humanity and “save the planet”:

  • Problems need to be shared – Greater attention needs to be given to what can be done to successfully manage slow or zero-growth economies and to spread the economic effects of small downturns more evenly over a population.
  • Benefits need to be shared – We need equalise welfare among nations in terms of GDP per capita rather than in terms of total economic growth.
  • Ideas must displace materialism – a paradigm shift must take place that sees the main focus of personal happiness move away from material consumption to the creation and consumption of ideas.

So, sharing our problems, sharing our resources, being happy with ideas and not possessions. I’m sure I’ve read about such ideas in some ancient books and scripts…

Research Blogging Icon Michael L. McIntyre, Steven A. Murphy, & Bernard Funston (2012). If not growth, then what? Int. J. Business Governance and Ethics, 7 (2), 96-117