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Economics As If Future Generations Mattered

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We have turned a corner on climate change— a wrong turn– and it is happening more rapidly than we have predicted. Climate change is already disrupting society, ecosystems, and national economies. We have altered so much of our Earth that we now threaten our own survival.

We know the catastrophic risks we are passing onto future generations and we wonder, with anxiety and grief, what will become of our planet. We ask ourselves, “what can I do?”.

One of the key barriers to taking action on the paramount issues of our time is that these problems are the end result of entrenched cultural, economic and social systems. The message that solutions to climate change and environmental degradation is up to the individual directly conflicts with what people are witnessing: the health and well-being of their bodies and their communities coming a distant second to powerful economic interests.

Current economic calculations do not recognize the full cost to the Commons – the cultural and natural heritage we share that is the foundation of our economy.

Yet growing numbers of people are waking up to the reemerging Commons ethic, which holds that human systems must be aligned to match ecological ones. People believe that future generations have the inalienable right to a healthy planet, and many are now seeking ways to withdraw their consent to the politics and policies that lead to a toxic future.

A rights-based approach to human systems like the economy allows us to open our discussion to questions like: What is the economy for? What are the principles needed to guarantee that we are fair to future generations? What tenets make justice and the protection of the Commons more likely?

The Women’s Congress for Future Generations, to be held Nov. 7-9 in Minneapolis, is joining the groundswell of individuals and organizations calling for the arraignment of our capital-driven, infinite-growth paradigms, and adopting different economic principles which many Indigenous cultures have lived by for centuries. This gathering builds and extends on the first Women’s Congress held in Moab, Utah in September 2012.

Attendees of the Moab Congress drafted a living Declaration of the Rights of Future Generations and corresponding Bill of Responsibilities of Present Generations. The goal of the upcoming Congress in November is to infuse the Declaration with an even deeper analysis of economic and environmental justice.

Participants at the Congress will bring forward ideas to help shift the way we care for and relate to our Earth–ideas such as moving environmental law out of free market private property law into rights law; caring for the Commons, the Precautionary Principle, and Free Prior and Informed Consent. Congress goers– both men and women–will imagine different economic principles that counter dominant but destructive paradigms.

Some of the new principles to be discussed are:

  1. The Earth is the source of our life and our economic activity.
  2. The Commons, the cultural and natural heritage we share, are the foundation of economics, which presupposes: a) a role of government as the trustee of the commons; b) Laws and rules governing economic systems must first protect the commonwealth; c) Concepts such as economic growth, which ignore the cost to the commons are evolutionary dead-ends.
  3. Justice within generations and justice between generations must be linked to economic justice.

And these are a few of the tenets that flow from these economic principles:

  1. Measure the right things: Currently we do not measure the health of the Commons. Pollution and disease count as good for the economic GDP.
  2. Polluter Pays: The one who pollutes or damages the commons shall be held responsible and pay for restoration.
  3. No Debt to Future Generations without a Corresponding Asset: We cannot ask future generations to pay for our messes. We can share with them the costs of assets like parks, art, clean air and water.
  4. Audit, Account for and Fund Commons Assets.

This is a conversation about the definition, boundaries, and acceptance of limits.

If one accepts the incontestable truth that present generations inherit an Earth left from previous generations, and that we are all eventually ancestors, then our lives are a simultaneously defined by inheriting and bequeathing.

Facing another incontestable truth that our Earth is finite allows us to expand our point of view to include a “bigger picture,” which tells a story with a common goal: It is a story of an incredibly interconnected living systems on which we are dependent, not dominant. The story of human development that has recalibrated its systems to match those of nature itself. The story of a civilization that thrives on stewardship and care, generation after generation into the far future.

On the Commons

9 Comments on "Economics As If Future Generations Mattered"

  1. Keith_McClary on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 11:30 pm 

    I have noticed that politicians and industry flacks talk about “a prosperous future for our children and grandchildren”, but they never add great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren …

  2. Davy on Sat, 25th Oct 2014 8:00 am 

    This is great stuff and the first couple of steps in the stages of grief. Where these folks get it wrong is the degree and duration of the pain and ugly we face. They also fail to see the degree of fall that women and others will fall from with their fight for equal rights. Expect this difficult and dangerous world to fall back to all those conditions of old like de facto slavery and servitude. Women in the home and minorities being oppressed. There is nothing currently and probably nothing ahead that can prepare us for what is coming. This coming energy gradient of food and liquid fuels that supports a population in a factor of 10 overshoot cannot be easily ridden down. Chaos, dysfunction, random technological abandonment, irrational leadership, and faulty public reactions will ensure a surreal deflation of modern life in a violent jagged drop to the unknown.

  3. Kenz300 on Sat, 25th Oct 2014 8:03 am 

    Climate Change is real……. it is time to transition to safer, cleaner and cheaper alternative energy sources.

    Wind, solar, wave energy, geothermal and second generation biofuels made from algae, cellulose and waste are the future.

    The fossil fuel interest will fight this transition to protect their profits.


    Charles Koch Linked To Creation Of Fossil Fuel-Defending Nonprofit: Report


    How Fossil Fuel Interests Attack Renewable Energy

  4. JuanP on Sat, 25th Oct 2014 10:50 am 

    I will address the title’s folly, before reading the article or comments.
    If future generations mattered, we would not be where we are. I like the idea, it’s very romantic. I wish they did matter, but for most people they just don’t matter enough to make any real sacrifices for them. I see this everywhere I look in the world. Even most parents suck at it.
    It’s like The Beatles sang so long ago: I, me, me, mine!

  5. FriedrichKling on Sat, 25th Oct 2014 1:23 pm 

    SJGM says global climate change is a hoax…meanwhile in the real world:

    2014 on track to be hottest year on record, says NOAA. All of the world’s top 10 warmest years have occurred since 2000. Climate studies have shown the world is poised for more warmth as the amounts of carbon dioxide rise. Last month, figures revealed carbon dioxide levels rose by the highest amount in 30 years in 2013.

    Another global warming denialist paper found to be unrealistic and inaccurate:

  6. JuanP on Sat, 25th Oct 2014 1:37 pm 

    FK, A small detail in your comment is wrong. Only nine of the top ten warmest years have occurred since 2000. 1998 makes the top of the list and was before 2000. The rest of your comment is perfectly accurate.

  7. GregT on Sat, 25th Oct 2014 2:29 pm 

    The Earth is the source of our life and our economic activity.

    AND, it is our economic activity that is destroying the Earth.

    We either voluntarily end the unsustainable path that we are on, or the Earth will do it for us. If we choose the latter, life as we know it will cease to exist, and our species faces extinction.

    Should be a no-brainer for a species with a high degree of intelligence?

  8. Makati1 on Sun, 26th Oct 2014 7:42 am 

    GregT, I only see the current conditions as proof of the non-existence of a high degree of intelligence. Perhaps we are truly outranked by chimps, dauphins and elephants?

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