A new direction for world economics?

In Brief: 
  • Given the limits imposed by finite resources, our global economic directions and its environmental impact desperately need reevaluation.
  • The authors ask a series of questions designed to test underlying assumptions, such as “What is an economy for? and “What is fair?”
  • They conclude what’s needed is a new moral and ethical framework that draws on the world’s spiritual traditions and new discoveries in ecological science.

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

Unlike many environmental books, Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy does not spend a lot of time trying to convince its audience that there is a lot going wrong in the world, whether over climate change, income inequality or environmental degradation. The authors assume most readers understand that already, if only by the logic that the infinite growth advocated by traditional economists can’t possibly continue on a planet with finite resources.

What Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver offer instead are a series of questions aimed at the underlying assumptions that prevail among policy-makers today about the relationship between environment and economics on what has been called “spaceship Earth.” Specifically, they pose five: “What is the economy for? How does it work? How big is too big? What is fair? How should it be governed?”

Their conclusions flow from the idea that each question can best be answered by considering the “relationships” between the various parts of the overall human/social/planetary system that we find ourselves deeply enmeshed in — and specifically in terms of “right” relationships, which is a moral and ethical concept drawn from the spiritual tradition of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), which the authors follow.

The concept, say Dr. Brown and Mr. Garver, “arises from the same deep commitment to human solidarity, human betterment, and the well-being of the commonwealth of life” that is followed by Quakers and many others.

“Economics and ecology are domains of relationship,” they write. “Economics is about access to the means of life. Ecology is about the mutual interdependence of life communities.”

Applying such principles, their answers include:

• That an economy is for “the well-being of communities and the individuals who make them up” – and “to preserve and enhance the integrity, resilience, and beauty of the whole commonwealth of life.”

  • That it works by drawing on the “science that underlies the workings of life systems on the earth” and the understanding that humanity cannot advance by “attempting to grow endlessly on a finite planet.”

  • That an economy is too big when it has “negative effect on the integrity, resilience, and beauty of the social systems and ecosystems that make up life’s commonwealth.”

  • That fairness is a matter of ensuring “that living beings and living systems receive the means by which they can flourish” and that there is “fair distribution among all members of life’s commonwealth, while at the same time preserving opportunities for healthy competition and diversity.”

  • That governance today requires a global framework, involving new international institutions that would include “an earth reserve; some form of global federalism; global environmental trusteeships; and a mandatory world court” — all aimed at “reining in economic development so that it no longer pushes past the ecological limits of the earth.”

  • There is much common ground between the Bahá’í teachings and the analysis and proposals offered by Dr. Brown and Mr. Garver.

Certainly their discussion of the need for stronger institutions of global governance will resonate with the Bahá’í teachings on the need to establish a united world federal system. And their discussion of the need for everyone to become “stewards of the entire planet” likewise resounds with the Bahá’í idea of world citizenship.

The book’s discussion of the “active convergence of science and religion” also echoes Bahá’í teachings on the fundamental oneness of science and religion. And most Bahá’ís would likely agree with the conclusion that values are the key to long term sustainability.

“Instead of the anxious, illusory pursuit of more money and possessions, people need to think about pursuing joyful, grateful, and fulfilling lives in right relationship with life’s commonwealth,” conclude Dr. Brown and Mr. Garver. “Values progression of this kind is needed not only at a personal level but also in institutions and enterprises at the community, national, and international level.”