Reflexion on Brian Fath’s lecture on ecological problems in relation to current economies

Jul 29, 2021 by

Brian Fath’s lecture and the discussion that followed broaches the issue of the unsustainable practices unfolding from today's Economies and points to the multiple crises resulting from it, such as the climate crisis, biodiversity crisis and many more which are to be expected. More specifically, he emphasized the disregard of the biophysical boundaries in the globally dominant economic system and proposed a pathway to reconnect economy to the real world.

The population increase combined with modern human activities requiring more resources and energy than ever, we face an unprecedented rise of the by-products associated with that activity (pollution, increase of greenhouse gas concentration, biodiversity loss…). Unfortunately, these by-products are not accounted for in the mainstream economic system. In technical terms, growth is only a function of labour, productivity and capital. Economic decisions are made based on a cost-benefit approach aiming for capital growth without considering the biophysical world and thus, speaking in mainstream economic terms, the internalization of external costs in products and services.

Consequently, our consumer culture has exponentially increased the depletion of resources in recent decades to a level that is no longer socially or ecologically sustainable. Despite the consciousness of living in a world with finite resources, the mantra of infinite growth, eternal production and constant consumption still prevails.

Arguments that the economic model should include the biophysical reality have been put forth as early as the 19th century (Malthus). The Club of Rome in its report “Limits to growth” concluded that a steady state in resources usage and population is the only viable path to achieve sustainability.

Following the realisation that ecosystems do well under constraints, Dr. Fath proposed that we can learn from them to redesign the economy. Ecosystems have inherent properties (such as thermodynamics and biochemical constraints, evolution, adaptation, diversification, interactions and emerging hierarchy) that naturally result in a balance between growth and development. The larger an ecosystem grows, the more resources/energy it requires to sustain itself and therefore the more limited it becomes in its capacity to grow further (e.g. Bioenergetic model of succession).  Using this principle, we can hope to distinguish growth (bigger) from development (better).

The response to the threat of COVID-19 has shown the ability of governments and communities to act on a global scale when all people share the same fate, seeing their existence threatened. Although the threats posed by the overshoot of planetary boundaries have not yet been treated with nearly the same urgency by the world community, this particular crisis offers a great opportunity for a change of the economic paradigm.

One way to avoid the comeback to ‘business as usual’ might be to implement a new system, based on the idea of a regenerative economy. This approach incorporates the ecosystems’ properties outlaid previously into the global economic system. It includes a full cost analysis and rules ensuring sustainability within the system. Another promising concept which goes the extra mile is the Performance economy, which is selling services rather than products, an idea also referred to as the ‘functional service economy’.

It is now clearer than ever that “Perpetual growth in material well-being is not possible or desirable” (John Stuart Mill). Dr. Fath and others warn that continuous growth is clearly not correlated with well-being and social justice. Only by questioning the foundations of our society, and by taking ecosystems as examples of sustainable entities can we hope to change the course of the upcoming humanity crisis.

Written by: Alexis Heitzmann and Luisa Lange

Based on the lecture "Ecological problems in relation to current economies" by Brian Fath during the AEMS Summer School 2021