Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Restructuring Society

Restructuring Society -- by Alan N. Connor
Why we need a circular economy

If nothing else persuades us that we need a new model for the global economy, the present recession should. A number of people reached that conclusion a few years before the “meltdown” in 2008. John Cobb and Herman Daly advocated for it before the turn of the century. David Korten has called for a new economic paradigm in an Agenda for a New Economy.
It is obvious to many of us, who are studying and concerned about the present economy that the present system of the industrially developed world is not sustainable. It is based on perpetual economic growth and perpetual supply of natural resources that the Earth does not have. Those resources--fossil fuels, minerals, pure water, fertile top soil, timber -- are being used, extracted, converted to goods much faster than nature can reproduce them. And they are discarded at a rate that is faster than nature can absorb them.
Such a system requires ever increasing consumption to maintain ever increasing production by industries simply to continue to maximize profits that are shared by the wealthy investors who own most of the shares of stocks. Rather than meet need, it produces goods and services that are not necessary for a good quality of life. It creates demand for non-necessities via advertising that values individual and household opulence rather than the “good life”. It is a system that prices a significant portion of the population out of the market for necessities by limiting supply to keep the effective demand price high.
Aggregation of luxurious goods and assets designates the winners in our competitive economic game. The wealth gap between winners (investment bankers and corporate executives) and losers (workers) increases inequitably. Costs of essential goods and services, such as healthcare, shelter, transportation, education food, fuel, utilities, are inflated above their intrinsic value. And necessities are priced at levels many low paid workers, doing work that In addition, our present economic-industrial system emits gasses and micro particles into the atmosphere and pollutants into our water and soils that degrade them and are hazardous to the public's health. There is empirical evidence and consensus among atmospheric and eco-biological scientists that industrial and agricultural emissions and pollutants are changing the Earth’s climate and its ability to sustain existing life. According to a number of economists a limited or even a no-growth economy in which a majority of people prosper is possible.
Economists and atmospheric and biological scientists have claimed that such an economy is necessary for human and most other life forms that inhabit earth today to continue to exist. James Hansen, chief atmospheric scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has said and written that CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere must be limited to 350 parts per million (ppm) to avert a future catastrophe. Some regions now have over 400 ppm.
Given the above information, plus the extreme weather and catastrophic events the Earth and its inhabitants have experienced this decade, an economy that is not driven by depleting fossil fuels and other minerals is worth trying. Hansen and a few other Earth and atmospheric scientists, recently, have said that much of the Earth’s altered eco-systems cannot be restored to their original condition and function. Since we cannot restore them to their original condition, human and other life will have to adapt to the extant ecology and perhaps regenerate the damaged and degraded eco-regions.
Probably many of us have a vision of how a new economy might be structured. A few have written books and scholarly papers describing their vision or some of the elements of what they believe a viable, sustainable economy include. There are variations among the visions cited, but there are similarities also. Korten and McKibben envision an economy that is local community based, rather than globally based. Jackson, Daly, Brown and Garver envision global governances and cultures that enable nations, regions, municipalities to establish and operate institutions, polities and economies in which all citizens participate and have access to the essentials of the “good life”. All of them see the necessity for an economy that is not reliant on and driven by non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, present state of the art nuclear power, minerals that are converted, used and discarded at rates faster than they can be renewed. In order for an economy to be sustainable, the ecological environment in which it exists and of which it is a subsystem, must be sustainable.
My vision of a worldwide social system is one that consists of local communities that are economically, ecologically and socio-culturally sustainable. They are self organized primarily to increase the probability that the settlement will persist into perpetuity. According to Parsons and Smelser the original, primary function of an economy was to harvest and extract local natural resources and convert them into useful goods and services that enable the local settlement to persist into the future. The goal and purpose or mission of the economy is to sustain the community not amass individual wealth. They defined the function of the polity – organized politics – as acquisition and control of resources so the inhabitants of the settlement can perform its economic functions. The local community culture then functions to create and promulgate values and behavioural norms that enable its economy and polity to perform community-sustaining functions.
Communities are social systems that cannot persist very far into the future in isolation. Closed systems become entropic. For any system to persist, be it social, biological, mechanical or physical, it must put out some utile good into one or more other systems and must input one or more utile good from beyond its boundary -- i.e. from one or more neighbouring systems. All systems are interdependent. Primitive settlements knew that. In order for communities to persist into perpetuity, they must be parsimonious in the extraction, harvesting, conversion and output of local natural resources, particularly those resources that require centuries to regenerate or renew themselves. Natural resources, whether renewable or not, are a community‘s natural capital assets. They need to be conserved. Throughput (extraction, harvesting, conversion allocation, distribution and consumption of a resource) needs to be durable, reusable and recyclable. Extraction should be at a rate that is not faster than the rate at which resources can regenerate and reproduce themselves.
Internal Community Systems
For a community to be sustainable for seven generations or longer, its internal systems must function to sustain its inhabitants. A community is a social-ecological system. It is social because it consists of people who settle in a more or less proscribed environment and relate to and interact with one another. They collectively develop behavioural norms and rules for relating and interacting in ways that do not harm one another and the environment that sustains them. It is ecological in that these particular people have settled in a place that provides them with natural resources that support and sustain lives.
We can consider the community or settlement a system of subsystems: the economy, the polity and the socio-culture. Daly maintains that the economic system is a subsystem of the eco-region or ecological system. For purposes of this discussion, let us consider community system and its subsystems: economy, socio-culture and polity as subsystems of the local eco-region in which the community is located. Each of those subsystems can also be thought of as composed of a set of subsystems.
Within a community economy there could be the following subsystems: manufacturing for producing and distributing products that are essential for a decent quality of life as defined by the local socio-culture; food production, allocation and distribution; banking (the allocation and distribution of credit, accounting and managing of local currency) and the exchange of goods and services within the community and with external communities.
The socio-cultural subsystem includes: families and other household forms, religious, service and civic groups and organizations, educational institutions, friendship groups. Those groups and organizations, formal and informal, develop and model the community’s ethic, values, behavioural and social norms and develop informal means to reinforce compliance and punish noncompliance.
The polity consists of the institutions that make or enact community public policy decisions and enact ordinances that conform to the community’s norms and values, allocate and regulate access to the community’s natural capital assets and enforce compliance to local public policy. It might include such institutions as police and fire departments, healthcare, social and legal services, conflict resolution organizations, overseeing the commons and infrastructure building, management and maintenance.
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