Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy / Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver -- San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009

People have faced problems connected to the depletion of natural resources and the disposal of waste in the past, but these problems have been highly localized. Civilizations fell or migrated when their critical resources ran out or their land was too contaminated to be productive, but the planet was large enough to provide new resources elsewhere and heal the destruction caused by our exploitation. It is becoming clear, however, that there are no longer significant untapped resources and that throwing "away" our waste is meaningless given the sheer amount of waste and the limits of the world's ecosystems. In Right Relationship, Brown and Garver address these problems and offer a blueprint for dealing with them.

The first chapters of the book give an admirable explanation of the problems. The most significant observation is something that must become a truism if we are to flourish: the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the natural world. From this observation, Brown and Garver conclude that any sustainable economy must acknowledge and operate within the limits of the natural world. Specifically, it must not depend on an unlimited supply of resources and must not assume that the planet is a bottomless sink for industrial waste. Brown and Garver ague that given the present use of resources and how we dispose of waste, we must abandon our current economic assumption that growth is a necessary good. Their argument is undeniable.

Furthermore, Brown and Garver recognize the challenge of resisting the powerful economic forces that drive growth. They offer two strategies to tackle the challenge. The first strategy is modelled on the Quaker movement to end slavery in which individuals bore witness to the injustice of slavery, transforming their daily actions and creating a social climate in which the end of slavery became possible. The second strategy is to create a world government empowered to protect the planet from selfish exploitation. This world government would be responsible for creating resource budgets for nations based upon the environmental impact of the nations' economic needs. The formula describing an economy's ecological impact is a function of population, affluence, technology, and ethics. Each nation would be free to maximize any of these elements only to the extent that the others are reduced enough for the nation to remain within its budgeted impact.

This second strategy is bold to the point of impracticality, but Brown and Garver assert that the ecological dangers we face are so imminent and significant that sketches for a global system need to be formulated and discussed immediately. Their book is an attempt to begin this. Their world government would be composed of four branches: (1) the Global Reserve, responsible for analysing the world's life support budgets, (2) Trusteeships of the Earth's commons, responsible for monitoring and protecting the Earth's major life support systems, e.g., atmosphere, ocean, soil, forests, etc., (3) a Global Federation, responsible for protecting human rights and the global commonwealth using both executive and legislative measures, and (4) a Global Court, responsible for preventing the abuse of the global authorities and enforcing global rules.

Through out their advocacy of a world government, Brown and Garver are sensitive to the criticism that this amounts to a world-wide fascism. In response, they observe that a de facto world government already exist in the form of the World Trade Organization, the IMF, the World Bank, and other international institutions that regulate our actions in pursuit of economic growth, and do so to enhance the well-being of transnational corporate elites. In contrast to this de facto world government, their government would be a more democratic, federated system, operating for the benefit of people and the global commonwealth, and it would establish an economy that remains within the realistic boundaries of the planet's natural extent.

Right Relationship is a valuable contribution to how we might address the coming ecological train wreck. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to convince anyone not already alarmed by corporate, government, and popular negligence. It will, however, be successful if it inspires other work along the same line which might more effectively and practically outline how international institutions could understand and address the challenges to come. Undoubtedly, these challenges will be addressed, but a thoughtful, global, holistic strategy is more likely to be effective than piecemeal actions to correct the most obvious, local disasters.

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