Passing through the Bottleneck
Steady State Economics might not be the best answer to current and future sustainability challenges. It might not even be sufficient as a solution, in its current form, as advocated by CASSE (The Centre for Advancement of Steady State Economics).
It might, however, be a useful stepping stone to better solutions we can’t yet know about, let alone express in economic terms. Some of the work of Brian Czech, Director of CASSE, and other authors in “Best of the Daly News” (ie Czech, 2020) is examined further below and in my forthcoming book, due to be published in 2021. And SSE might be a whole lot better than the current way economies are managed (or left to markets) in most parts of the world today.
However, it's worth setting some wider context first, which will help to explain why this, and other new forms of economic thinking, are a necessary field of thought and practice to address our current predicament.
The Bottleneck humanity hopes to pass through
“The Precipice” by Toby Ord (ie Ord, 2020) resonates with my own perspectives on the long-term development of humanity and the risks it currently faces.
Ord points out that humanity is at a critical crossroads, where its power has outstripped its wisdom, resulting in several serious existential risks (including unsustainability of our impacts on nature, rogue AI (Artificial Intelligence), engineered biological agents and conflicts that might, potentially, involve nuclear weapons).
The finite planetary limits of the biosphere that supports us are like a bottle containing a model ship in the classic “ship in a bottle”. Our population and civilisation are like the ship. The human ecological footprint has been growing as we have developed (the ship has been growing in size and complexity inside the bottle). But we are realising that the finite bounds of the biosphere, and the damage caused by our overshooting sustainable thresholds, is reducing the size of the biosphere and its capacity to support us (the neck of the bottle has been narrowing, as a result of our actions) and the rate of that depletion in biospherical capacity is accelerating.
We want humanity to progress further, because our future potential is immense if we can more effectively harness the energy from the sun (the only input from outside the bottle) and if we can access materials from outside the earth system, for example by mining materials on the moon, from asteroids or find even more distant exploitable resources. After all, the universe outside the bottle is potentially infinite in materials, energy and evolutionary progress for living beings.
Our challenge is to pass through the neck of the bottle, and to pull what we can of the ship, through with us, without destroying the bottle that is humanity’s birthplace.
It becomes obvious there are two main options for doing this, which are not mutually exclusive.
Firstly, we can modify our impacts on the natural biosphere, to reduce (and eventually reverse) the rate of degradation of the biosphere’s capacity to support us (slow down, and then reverse, the rate at which the neck of the bottle is shrinking).
Secondly, we can alter our civilisation and the way it draws resources from the biosphere and uses them, for example adopting circular systems of material and energy flow, such as those advocated in circular economy, or even implementing something along the lines of a steady state economy, a GDP-growth-agnostic economy or something similar (remodel the ship so it will more easily pass through the neck).
If we can do these things, a bright future awaits and the innumerable future generations of humanity will thank us for our efforts.
If we fail, however, our failure will go down in history as the biggest failure of any known life reaching a state of advanced intelligence and civilisation.
We should use the sense of responsibility this imparts as a spur to action.
The bottleneck analogy is used also, extensively, in White and Hagens (2020) “The Bottlenecks of the 21st Century”.
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