A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability
Vol. 10, No. 1, January 2014|
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
Ending the Insanity of Ecocide
Amelia Womack, Villo Lelkes and Prisca Merz
This article was originally published in
The Daly News, 25 November 2013
under a Creative Commons License
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” –Buckminister Fuller
We live in the age of ecocide. Defined as the extensive damage, destruction or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, ecocide is the result of the way people, corporations, and governments are running their affairs all around the globe. But ecocide doesn’t have to be the status quo. A new law being proposed in the European Union would protect ecosystems by giving them legal standing. Under such a law, the Earth would no longer exist purely as property or a set of resources to be exploited. Instead people and institutions would acknowledge the intrinsic value of ecosystems and accept the legal duty to protect them.
Ending ecocide requires nothing short of a paradigm shift. This shift, in turn, requires a cultural change — a movement away from exploitation and toward stewardship of nature. The cultural shift is unfolding as people, especially the younger generation, internalize the evidence of ecocide and its devastating consequences constantly being issued in reports about global warming, species extinctions, and natural resource depletion. But we need more than just a cultural shift. We need specific and revolutionary changes in two subsystems of society: the legal framework and the economy.
The Legal Shift to End Ecocide
The concept of ecocide has been discussed since the 1950s, and it has even been codified as a war crime. According to Article 8.2 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it is illegal to cause “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment” in acts of war. But the same damage caused in peacetime is legal. In 2010, building on a history of attempts to criminalize ecocide, Polly Higgins submitted a proposal to the United Nations to include ecocide as the Fifth Crime Against Peace.
At the core of the law of ecocide prevention is the idea that decision-makers in business and politics should be held personally and criminally liable for damages caused to the environment. Contrary to the existing system in which fines often fail to cover the cost of cleanup, companies and decision-makers under the law of ecocide prevention would be held criminally accountable and would have to pay the costs of restoring ecosystems to the extent possible.
Today many laws and regulations are in place to protect certain parts of the natural environment, such as soil, water, and endangered species. However, existing legislation treats each of these elements separately, fragmenting the overall body of environmental law. In contrast, the law of ecocide prevention takes a holistic approach by establishing a broad framework for conserving ecosystems and the services they provide.
The main aim of this legislation is not the imprisonment of decision-makers but the creation of incentives and a legal framework for achieving environmentally sound behavior, especially within corporations. Imagine all investments flowing into non-ecocidal activities and the resultant innovations driven by resource efficiency and waste minimization. With strict enforcement, businesses would make the necessary adjustments to comply with the new legal framework. If accompanied by subsidies to facilitate the transition to a new business model, the law of ecocide prevention has the potential to trigger a transition to a different sort of economy — one that operates in harmony with the ecosystem.
The Economic Shift to End Ecocide
The economic goal of continuous growth sets the stage for ecocide. With their primary focus on more and more growth, businesses contribute to the global environmental catastrophe by externalizing the environmental costs of their profit-maximizing actions. As moral philosopher Michael Sandel puts it, we have moved from a market economy that is valuable for organizing productive activity to a market society where everything is up for sale. The problem with a market society is that it corrodes or crowds out important, non-market-based values and de-emphasizes public goods at a time when inequality is dramatically rising.
Instead of a growth-obsessed economy focused on maximizing profits and producing more and more goods and services, we need a steady state economy focused on maximizing well-being and producing sufficient goods and services within ecological boundaries. As described by Herman Daly, a steady state economy uses the “lowest feasible flows of matter and energy from the first stage of production to the last stage of consumption.” The idea is to maintain a non-growing throughput of low-entropy resources and energy through the economy. In short, instead of getting bigger, the focus shifts to getting better.
We may have already arrived at a major economic inflection point. The rate of global economic growth is decreasing, and some economists are discussing whether we have reached the end of economic growth and the limits of global capitalism. 2008 marked the beginning of the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression. With the old system failing, there is potential for the North and eventually the South to make the turn toward a steady state economy that is based on the principles of sustainable development.
Even though the old system of continuous growth is failing, we need to create the conditions for a steady state economy to emerge. Unfortunately, the principles of sustainable development are mostly missing from today’s environmental law and policy. That’s why the steady state economy goes hand in hand with the law of ecocide prevention. It’s exactly the kind of economy that will materialize when businesses are legally bound to protect ecosystems.
The law of ecocide prevention and the steady state economy constitute two paradigm shifts, a legal and an economic one. These two shifts reinforce one another and move society in the same direction — placing people and planet ahead of profit. But how can people who recognize the necessity of this two-pronged shift help make it happen?
A group of volunteers has proposed a law to the European Union to make ecocide a crime if it is committed in EU territory, or by companies registered in the EU, or by EU citizens. The proposed legislation would also apply to the import of any goods or services resulting from activities causing ecocide in the EU and the financing of ecocide by EU banks or financial institutions. If one million EU citizens support this proposal by January 21st, 2014, the European Commission will be legally bound to propose an action. We would like to invite EU citizens to vote today for a law to protect our future. Ecocidal tendencies have no place in either our legal or our economic institutions.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS|
Amelia Womack, Villo Lelkes and Prisca Merz are volunteers for End Ecocide, a European citizens initiative aiming to criminalize ecocide. They need to collect 1 million signatures for a law to be considered by the EU. Amelia is a Green Party candidate for the European Parliament and has completed a MSc in environmental technology — her thesis addressed the impact of the law of ecocide prevention on business. Villo is an environmental lawyer who previously worked for the European Commission as a policy officer on sustainability. Prisca has a background in public policy and human development and heads the End Ecocide team as a volunteer.
This article was originally published in
The Daly News, 9 December 2013
under a Creative Commons License
Frederick Soddy (1877-1956) discovered the existence of isotopes and was a major contributor to atomic theory, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1921. He foresaw the development of an atomic bomb and was disturbed by the fact that society often used the contributions of science (for which he was partly responsible) for such destructive purposes. The reason for this was, in his view, faulty economics, so in the second half of his 80 years he set out to reform economics. He was the first person coherently to lay out the policy of 100% reserve banking, later taken up by the Chicago School economists and by Irving Fischer of Yale — and still an excellent idea. Soddy was considered an outsider and a “monetary crank” by mainstream economists. Nevertheless, his views on money are sound and highly relevant to today’s financial debacle. Another neglected but increasingly relevant contribution is his philosophical vision of the place of economics in the larger intellectual map of the world.
For Soddy economics occupies the middle ground between matter and spirit, or as he put it, “between the electron and the soul:”
In each direction possibilities of further knowledge extend ad infinitum, but in each direction diametrically away from and not towards the problems of life. It is in this middle field that economics lies, unaffected whether by the ultimate philosophy of the electron or the soul, and concerned rather with the interaction, with the middle world of life of these two end worlds of physics and mind in their commonest everyday aspects, matter and energy on the one hand, obeying the laws of mathematical probability or chance as exhibited in the inanimate universe, and, on the other, with the guidance, direction and willing of these blind forces and processes to predetermined ends.
(Cartesian Economics, p. 6)
Soddy did not mean that economists should neglect the two end worlds of electron and soul — much to the contrary he insisted that wealth must reflect the independent reality of both end worlds. What must be resisted is the “obsessive monism” of either idealism or materialism. We must recognize the fundamental dualism of the material and the spiritual and resist attempts to reduce everything to one or the other.
Wealth has both a physical dimension, matter-energy subject to the laws of inanimate mechanism, especially the laws of thermodynamics, and a teleological dimension of usefulness, subject to the purposes imposed by mind and will. Soddy’s concept of wealth reflects his fundamental dualism and is why his first lectures on economics were entitled Cartesian Economics, meaning in effect, “Dualist Economics” (not, as might be imagined today, economics diagrammed in terms of Cartesian coordinates). The subtitle of Cartesian Economics, “The Bearing of Physical Science on State Stewardship,” better reflects his dualism in the contrast between “physical science” and “stewardship.”
Philosophically Rene Decartes accepted dualism as a brute fact even though the interaction of the two worlds of mind and matter, of soul and body, of res cogitans and res extensa, remained mysterious. Subsequent philosophers have in Soddy’s view succumbed to monistic reductionism, either materialism or idealism, both of which encounter philosophical problems no less grave than dualism, as well as provoke greater offenses against both common sense and direct experience. It is fashionable to reject dualism nowadays by saying that humans are a “psychosomatic unity” even while recognizing a “polarity” within that unity. Nevertheless, the two poles of electron and soul are very far apart, and the line connecting them is, as Soddy argued, twice discontinuous. While we are surely in some important sense a “unity,” it would be good to recognize the legitimate claims of dualism by writing the word “psycho–somatic” with a long double hyphen.
Soddy’s view can be represented by a vertical line connecting the electron (physical world, useful matter-energy, ultimate means) at the bottom, to the soul (will, purpose, ultimate end) at the top. In the middle is economics (efforts in ordinary life to use ultimate means to serve the ultimate end). Soddy did not draw such a diagram, but it is implicit in his writing. The vertical connecting line has two mysterious discontinuities that thwart monistic attempts to derive soul from electron, or electron from soul. The first discontinuity is between inanimate mechanism and life. The second discontinuity is between life and self-conscious mind (will, soul). Monists keep trying, and failing, to leap over both chasms. Dualists accept them as irreducible brute facts about the way the world is.
Soddy’s Dualist Economics
Dualists use the axiom of duality to interpret other phenomena instead of vainly pursuing the illusion of reductive monism. Nowadays the dominant monistic obsession is materialism, supported by the impressive successes of the physical sciences, and the lesser but still impressive extrapolations of Darwinist biologism. Idealism does not have so much support at present, although modern theoretical physics and cosmology seem to be converting electrons and elementary matter into mathematical equations and strange Platonic ideas that reside more in the minds of theoretical physicists than in the external world, thus perhaps bending the vertical line connecting mind and matter into something more like a circle. Also, a Whiteheadean interpretation of the world as consisting most fundamentally of “occasions of experience” rather than substances, is a way to bridge dualism, but only with the help of widely separated and mysteriously combined “polarities” of mentality and physicality posited or anticipated in each occasion of experience. While these are challenging and important philosophical developments, it remains true that materialism currently retains the upper hand and is claiming an ever-expanding monistic empire, including the middle ground of economics. In addition, physics’ modern revival of idealism so far seems morally vacuous — among the equations and Platonic ideas of modern physics one does not find ideas of justice or goodness, or even purpose, so the fact-value dimension of dualism remains.
As Soddy insisted, economics occupies the middle ground between these dualistic extremes. Economics in its everyday aspects remains largely “unaffected whether by the ultimate philosophy of the electron or the soul,” but this may be the big weakness of economics, the myopia that leads to its growth-forever vision. Each end world reflects unrecognized limits back toward the middle world –limits of possibility from below, and limits of desirability from above. Economics seems to assume that if it is possible it must be desirable, indeed practically mandatory. Similarly, if it is desirable it must be possible. So everything possible is considered desirable, and everything desirable is considered possible. Ignoring the mutually limiting interaction of the two end worlds of possibility and desirability has led economists to assume a permissiveness to growth of the middle world of the economy that is proving to be false. For Soddy this is reflected concretely in the economy by our monetary conventions — fractional reserve banking, which allows alchemical creation of money as interest-bearing private debt:
You cannot permanently pit an absurd human convention, such as the spontaneous increment of debt [compound interest], against the natural law of the spontaneous decrement of wealth [entropy].
(Cartesian Economics, p. 30)
Debt is confused with wealth. But unlike debt, wealth has a physical dimension that limits its growth. This reflects mainly a misunderstanding of the physical world and its limits on wealth. But Soddy also saw limits coming from the end world of the soul.
Just as I am constrained to put a barrier between life and mechanism in the sense that there is no continuous chain of evolution from the atom to life, so I put a barrier between the assimilation and creation of knowledge.
(Cartesian Economics, p. 28)
For Soddy the assimilation of knowledge was mere mimicry, and was discontinuous with the creation or discovery of new knowledge, which he saw as also involving a spiritual top down influence from the soul, from the mysteriously self-conscious mind that could not be derived from mere animate life by a continuous chain of evolution. Soddy said little about the life-mind discontinuity relative to the matter-life discontinuity, but it was clearly part of his philosophy, and has come to the fore in modern philosophical debates about the “hard problem of consciousness.”
To the mechanistic biologists, who were already around in his day, Soddy had the following barbed comment:
I cannot conceive of inanimate mechanism, obeying the laws of probability, by any continued series of successive steps developing the powers of choice and reproduction any more than I can envisage any increase in the complexity of an engine resulting in the production of the “engine-driver” and the power of its reproducing itself. I shall be told that this is a pontifical expression of personal opinion. Unfortunately, however, for this argument, inanimate mechanism happens to be my special study rather than that of the biologist. It is the invariable characteristic of all shallow and pretentious philosophy to seek the explanation of insoluble problems in some other field than that of which the philosopher has first hand acquaintance.
(Cartesian Economics, p. 6)
To generalize a bit, monists, who deny the two discontinuities, seek to solve the insoluble problems that they thereby embrace, by shallowly and pretentiously appealing to some other field than that of which they have first hand experience. This is a serious indictment — is it true? I will leave that question open, but will note on Soddy’s behalf that regarding the matter-life discontinuity, Francis Crick evidently thought it more likely that first life arrived from outer space (directed panspermia) than that it formed spontaneously from inanimate matter on earth, given the demonstration by Pasteur and Tyndall that “spontaneous generation is not occurring on the earth nowadays.” And, as already mentioned, a number of philosophers and neuroscientists (including John Eccles and Karl Popper) have declared that the life-mind discontinuity presents “the hard problem of consciousness,” judged by many to be unbridgeable.
The relevance of Soddy’s dualistic economics to steady-state economics is that there are two independent sets of limits to growth: the bottom-up bio-physical and the top-down ethical-economic. The biophysical limit says real GDP cannot grow indefinitely; the ethical-economic limit says that beyond some point GDP growth ceases to be worth what it displaces, although it may still be bio-physically possible. Certainly Soddy did not speak the last word on dualism versus monism. Nevertheless, he was truly a pioneer in ecological economics, seen as the middle ground between the electron and the soul. Although no ecological economist has won the ersatz “Swedish National Bank’s Memorial Prize in Economics in Honor of Alfred Nobel,” pioneer ecological economist, Frederick Soddy, has the distinction of having won a real Nobel Prize in chemistry. That doesn’t mean that he is right about dualist economics, but I think it earns him a serious hearing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Herman Daly has received numerous significant awards (e.g., the Right Livelihood Award and the NCSE Lifetime Achievement Award) that recognize the value of his ideas for making this world a better place. For decades, he has been an inspiration to students of economics and public policy — how often do you see students lining up at the end of the semester to have their professor sign their textbooks?
Over his career, Herman has taken a courageous stance, swimming upstream against the currents of conventional economic thought. Not content to bequeath his ideas on economic development solely to the academic realm, he did time at the World Bank to change policies in the real world. He also has written books that are popular with citizens around the world.
It’s a rare combination indeed to have keen insight, kindness, razor-sharp analytical skill, wit, amazing capacity for work, humility, and an uncanny way with words all rolled up into one human being. It’s a good thing, too — the planet needs Herman Daly. His books, lectures, papers, and essays (including the ones he writes for this blog!) are filled with ingredients for cooking up a better economy and better lives.
ABOUT THE CENTER FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF THE STEADY STATE ECONOMY
The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) is a research group on economic sustainability located in Arlington, Virginia, USA. The mission of CASSE is "to advance the steady state economy, with stabilized population and consumption, as a policy goal with widespread public support." The CASSE website provides many additional research resources on economic growth, degrowth, and post-growth. For example:
The following chart captures the basic rationales for the steady-state economy:
"Marginal cost refers to the cost of producing one more unit of a good or service. Marginal benefit is the benefit gained from one more unit. This graph shows the marginal costs and benefits of GDP growth. Costs tend to rise and benefits tend to decrease for each additional unit of growth. We should stop growing GDP, therefore, when marginal costs are exactly equal to marginal benefits. If costs are less than benefits, then GDP growth is economic (the green part of the graph). When costs rise above benefits, GDP growth is uneconomic (the brown part)."
Additional articles on the application of the fundamental steady-state economy concept to specifc issues can be found in the
The Daly News. The following is a list of recently published articles:
Steady Statesmanship Goes Global,
by Jon Rosales, The Daly News, 17 June 2013
Full Employment Versus Jobless Growth, Herman Daly, The Daly News, 15 July 2013
Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation,
Samuel Alexander, The Daly News, 1 August 2013
Fixing Food and Farming with a True-Cost Economy, Brent Blackwelder, The Daly News, 6 August 2013
The End of the Age of Extraction, Brent Blackwelder, The Daly News, 2 September 2013.
Approaching a Steady State Economy, Part 1 — Getting Around, Rob Dietz, The Daly News, 9 September 2013
Approaching a Steady State Economy, Part 2 — Clean Clothes, Rob Dietz, The Daly News, 16 September 2013
Growth and Laissez-faire, Herman Daly, The Daly News, 23 September 2013.
Unlimited Competition Is Not Sustainable, Gunnar Rundgren, The Daly News, 30 September 2013.
Insanity Reigns at the World Bank, Brent Blackwelder, The Daly News, 14 October 2013.
A Question of Scarcity, Andrew Fanning, The Daly News, 21 October 2013.
How Many People Can a State Sustain?, George Plumb, The Daly News, 4 November 2013.
The Five Dumbest Things You’ll Hear About Sustainability, Brian Czech, The Daly News, 12 November 2013.
Top 5 Threats to the World’s Beaches (and a Systemic Solution), Brent Blackwelder, The Daly News, 18 November 2013.
The Hidden Door: Mindful Sufficiency as an Alternative to Extinction, Mark Burch, The Daly News, 16 December 2013.
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