Sustainability by design

John Ehrenfeld’s nice blog post on the ethics of sustainability, “On the Merits of Fishing“,  prompted this short response.  It leads to a good way to describe economic sustainability by design, as Keynes envisioned:

“this more favorable possibility comes to the rescue”.

It’s curious that the metaphor of growth has yet to be connected with nature’s general process of making things that reliably work by themselves. Her process invariably involves systems become comfortable with themselves at the end of growth, something like the fisherman’s ethic described here.

We see nature doing it all over, starting with highly immature things expanding and changing at dangerously rapid rates, to then stop expanding and become highly competent and secure. It’s a rather ironic progression, and the same one every time, starting with a process of explosive expansion, as if to take over their new environment entirely.

Things that end up maturing, to take care of themselves somehow, stop being immature somehow. Instead of being like cancers and crowding everything else out they become highly responsible citizens, their new environment. So… for nature, success comes at the end of growth, and beginning of any living system’s rich adult life.

Even the master economic growth theorist, J.M. Keynes, proposed having that switch occur to solve the environmental crisis that would come at the limits of his own growth theory. In Chapter 16 of The General Theory he described how the finances would work, if economies were to mature to begin their adult life at the limits of their immature growth.

The special thing Keynes understood was how matter and money are connected. It’s financial investment savings that are the stimulus for the economy’s physical demands on the earth. At the physical limits of the earth then, financial investment savings would also need to stop growing.

Keynes said “this more favorable possibility comes to the rescue”, essentially, if the rich act something like fisherman and take it easy, rather than keep using the money they catch to multiply the bait they put in the river.  People with money would need a reason to spend their savings enough to stop escalating their physical stress on people and the earth.  That reversal of growing financial demands, turning savings into spending rather than more debt, would reverse the debt spiral, and let the economy heal and mature.




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