By Donella Meadows
–June 18, 1998–
“Vermont to Grab Its Share of Multibillion Dollar Global Environment Market,” said the press release announcing a meeting I attended last weekend. The organizing body (Partnership of Environmental Technology & Science, or POETS) was more modest in its brochure. “From the Industrial Revolution to the Ecological Revolution,” it said. “New Business Opportunities for Vermont.”
There is indeed a multibillion-dollar market in environment-friendly products and services. It will grow as more people and things have to share fewer planetary resources. Fifty years from now, if we’re around at all, we will run vehicles with hydrogen, generate electricity from sunlight, recycle materials with exquisite efficiency, grow high-yield food with no chemicals, and purify wastes in beautiful pools and gardens. These technologies will be worth trillions of dollars or “ecos” or whatever we call money then. I hope and expect that Vermont will get a good share.
But I have a problem with “grabbing” and “global markets” and “multibillions.”
I know that’s how the business world talks. Unless you’re operating in 50 countries and growing at 20 percent per year, you’re nobody. Cast your intent over the planet, beat others to the future, think in billions — a thrilling game. But not a path to the ecological revolution. Rather a relic of the industrial revolution, even when applied to environmental products and services.
The global business game has three problems. It aims at false goals. It has lost important steering mechanisms. And it wastes not only natural resources, but human resources, the creative participation of the people.
Market share is an abstraction. It’s not something anyone wants FOR ITSELF, any more than we want kilowatt-hours or GDP or even money. You can’t eat or hug, breathe or dance to these things. They are means, not ends. What we WANT is healthy children, good food, clean air and water, friendly communities, fun and joy and secure jobs that use our talents well.
If we lose sight of those real goals, we find ourselves trashing the ends in order to pile up the means. Just listen to corporate leaders explaining why they must addict our children, put untested substances in our food, pour toxins into air and water, abandon communities and downsize or underpay us, all for the sake of dollars, stock values, market share.
Author Wendell Berry says (in the June 1998 issue of Resurgence magazine), “We have many commodities, but little satisfaction…. The industrial economy’s most-marketed commodity is satisfaction, [but] this commodity, which is repeatedly promised, bought, and paid for, is never delivered.” That’s because the economic game, as currently structured, focuses on symbols instead of life.
Even if the goals are right, no economy can home in on them without accurate information. That’s why “globalization” becomes a problem. Says Berry, “It is virtually impossible for us to know the economic history or the ecological cost of the products we buy; their origins are typically too distant and too scattered, and the processes of trade, manufacture, transportation and marketing too complicated…. Where there is no reliable accounting and therefore no competent knowledge of the economic and ecological effects of our lives, we cannot live lives that are economically and ecologically responsible.”
Global trade, like stock values, dollars, market share, isn’t bad or good in itself. It is also a means. It cannot serve any end properly if it does not charge the buyer the full costs of production, including the costs of supporting workers decently, the costs of non-polluting factories, the costs of sustaining rather than depleting resources. We would never buy the “cheap” goods that flood in from around the world if we knew their costs to workers, communities, nature, and the future.
“Externalizing” costs — imposing them on someone who does not benefit from the product — is a classic market failure. There are two ways to fix it. The simplest is, insofar as possible, to buy local, so we can see and reward the producers who treat people and nature with respect. Says Berry: “Only a healthy local economy can keep nature and work together in the consciousness of the community. Consumers who understand their economy will not tolerate the destruction of the local soil or ecosystem or watershed as a cost of production.” Buying local also means buying fresh, reducing transport, recycling money close to home and building neighborly relationships.
Some things cannot be produced locally; they will always be traded. So we must ensure — by regulation or tariffs or taxes — that prices count full costs. That will protect responsible producers from the unfair competition of irresponsible ones. It may make some things look more expensive, but they won’t actually be so. Invisible costs will just become visible and be charged to the right party.
Then there’s the problem with “multibillions.” No one needs a billion dollars or even a lowly million. Income or ownership beyond six zeros is not about material need, it’s about keeping score, proving worth, feeding ego, seizing control, walling off fears. And huge accumulations in the hands of a few come at the expense of the security, ownership and participation of others.
If the multibillions available from environmental technologies flow through many businesses, farms, decision-makers, innovators and owners, they will stimulate the widespread creativity we need for the great transition to an ecological economy. If they are “grabbed” by a few, no matter how bright and hard-working those few, the contributions of the rest of us will be dulled. It’s the difference between growing your own garden and working on someone’s plantation.
Well, POETS put on a spectacular meeting. By happy geological and historical accident, Vermont is off the beaten track of the global economy, endowed with beautiful land and forests that people still treasure, full of honest, innovative people, and unaccustomed to multibillions. If an ecological revolution can happen anywhere, it can happen there.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998