Here's another in the train of posts about economics and sustainability. I started with meditations on cooperatives, and openness and martian economics, and then business in network service. And finally, a brief thought on the state of contemporary marriage. This post takes a step back so that I can talk about what I mean by sustainability, which I think requires a bit of a sidestep into thinking about ecology and the environment.
Sustainability, as I've come to think about it seems to be more about directing economic activity toward independence, an self sufficiency rather than toward "growth," (the for-profit model) and charitable/philanthropic goals (the non-profit model).
No sooner do I say this, and I realize that being a proponent of sustainable approaches to economics makes me seem like something of an economic isolationist, and I think that's the wrong direction. The problem with sustainability isn't just that it's hard to accomplish in pragmatic terms, but also hard to think about. We simply don't have structures or models for people and groups who want to make an honest living creating new things (eg. fiction, computers, cabinets, software, agriculture/comestibles, pharmaceuticals, plumbing, newspapers, etc).
Sure, we know how to make things, and most of us manage to make a living at it, but our economic models rely on lots of growth and expansion in order for capital to be available (cite: current economic crisis). The missing piece--it seems to me--is a more systems-based approach to economic development and corporate organization.
Sustainability is, after all, an ecological idea and in this context. And discussions of the environment and ecology seem way more focused on sentimentality, hydrocarbon intput/output, and humanity's impact on the environment in the context of our existing (non sustainable) business practices and not enough time thinking about our business practices in environmental terms. But taking an "ecological" approach to economics signifies (in my mind) attention to the economy as a whole, and sustainability as a practice, and that seems like it would be a good thing.
In the Mars books (which have been quite influential in this series) a few characters float the notion of an "eco-economics" where currency (such as it exists), are based on caloric input and output. Which is a nifty way to think about it. The strongest part of the martian government (near the end of the series) is a regulatory "environmental court" that attempts to manage the ecological/economical activities on a global scale. They're reasonably effective at this.
I return the Mars books because they're fresh in my mind, and because they present a possibility that's both radically different from our current system and that attends to the weight of our history. I don't think that the Robinson-Mars solution is the answer to our economic problems but it does force us to say "20th centry growth-levels are unsustainable, and undesirable," and that "from a systems-based approach (if no other) capitalism is unstable." And that's a useful thought exercise.
As is the project of thinking about economics in environmental terms. Not because it will diminish human impact on ecologies--though it may--but because that sort of systems approach will lead to more sustainable economies and better lives for all parties to that activity--human and environmental.
That's a worthwhile goal.