By Donella Meadows
–March 22, 1990–
“In the current vocabulary of condemnation there are few words as final and conclusive as the word ‘uneconomic’,” wrote E.F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful. “Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be ‘uneconomic’ you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.”
If we human beings are ever going to live in happiness and harmony with each other and with the natural world, we will have to rethink our economics — starting with downgrading the importance of economics in our thinking.
Buckminster Fuller: “The world doesn’t run on money. The grass doesn’t pay the clouds for the rain.”
Mark Sagoff, in The Economy of the Earth: “The things we cherish, admire, or respect are not always the things we are willing to pay for. Indeed, they may be cheapened by being associated with money. It is fair to say that the worth of the things we love is better measured by our UNWILLINGNESS to pay for them…. Love is not worthless. We would make all kinds of sacrifices for it. Yet a market in love — or in anything we consider sacred — is totally inappropriate. These things have a DIGNITY rather than a PRICE.”
The way we price things has nothing to do with their value. The natural world in particular, the land and its resources, bears a relationship to economic pricing that is actually perverse. The more valuable the land in market terms, the more destroyed it is in land terms.
Marilyn Waring, in Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth: “I turn … to the mountains. If minerals were found there, the hills would still be worthless until a mining operation commenced. And then as cliffs were gouged, as roads were cut and smoke rose, the hills would be of value — the price the minerals would fetch on the world market. No price would be put on the violation of the earth, or the loss of beauty, or the depletion of mineral resources. That is what value means according to economic theory.”
A new economics, one that could guide us to a world that is both desirable and sustainable, would not be so mesmerized by numbers, money, prices, bottom lines, QUANTITY that it forgets to take into account that crucial but unmeasurable characteristic we call QUALITY.
Wendell Berry in Home Economics: “We may transform trees into boards, and transform boards into chairs, adding value at each transformation. In a good human economy, these transformations would be made by good work, which would be properly valued and the workers properly rewarded. But a good human economy would recognize … that it was dealing all along with materials and power that it did not make. It did not make trees, and it did not make the intelligence and talents of the human workers….”
“The good worker loves the board before it becomes a table, loves the tree before it yields the board, loves the forest before it gives up the tree. The good worker understands that a badly made artifact is both an insult to its user and a danger to its source.”
A new economics would not madly pursue growth of everything at any cost. It would realize that on a finite planet perpetual growth is impossible and that an economics for the long term must encompass the concept of ENOUGH.
E.F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful: “A way of life that bases itself on … permanent, limitless expansionism in a finite environment cannot last long … Its life expectation is the shorter the more successfully it pursues its expansionist objectives…. The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. It is also the antithesis of freedom and peace. Every increase of needs tends to increase one’s dependence on outside forces over which one cannot have control…. Only by a reduction of needs can one promote a genuine reduction in those tensions which are the ultimate causes of strife and war.”
Herman Daly and John Cobb in For the Common Good: “Economics can rethink its theories from the viewpoint of person-in-community (and in nature) and still include the truth and insight it gained when it thought in individualistic terms. It need not ‘junk’ its axioms. Many of them can continue to function, only with more recognition of their limits. The change will involve … correction and expansion, a more empirical and historical attitude, less pretense to be a ‘science,’ and the willingness to subordinate the market to (higher) purposes.”
Many thoughtful people are trying to work out a new economics, as if people and the environment mattered. Some of the best of them and their works have been quoted here.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990