Transition to a Sustainable World

By James B. Quilligan
Many people recognize that the transition to a sustainable world means turning the economy into an ecosystem. But the way of making this adjustment is entirely unclear. A shift to what? And how?
Governments, scientists, think tanks, academic communities, sustainable businesses, eco-villages, transition towns, new economics, degrowth groups and sharing and gift circles are deeply fragmented in their understanding of social and economic change. Most analysts and activists have not gotten beyond the idea of pricing natural resources to create a new balance between society and nature in the 21st century.
Yet, raising the cost of food, water and gasoline, budgeting carbon dioxide emissions or using energy-saving light bulbs and solar panels will not bring about the systemic transformation that is needed. Such attempts at harnessing individual incentives to generate environmentally-friendly behavior, based on market-driven consumption and economic growth, are creating well-intentioned but false hopes.
The ecological problem is structural. Sooner or later, world civilization must integrate—not just prices and technology—but its institutions, rules and practices with the biosphere. What does this mean? How would society itself become a natural system, applying principles like biomimicry or permaculture to sustain its population? How can we maintain the metabolism of our social habitat in the same way that a living organism assimilates water, air, nitrogen and carbon?
Actually, the solutions are ancient. Successful communities have always found ways of managing resources to ensure sustainability. Very often, they would tax the value that people take from their commons, thereby creating dividends for citizens and the means for regenerating their resources. Since the 17th-18th century Enlightenment, however, the control of people’s common resources has increasingly been claimed by markets and governments, which have a very different agenda of progress and accountability. Modern societies tax the value that people add to their commons, which generates scarcity, poverty, waste and social and ecological debt.
There are two ways of shifting forward from the modern system to the democratic management of our commons. First, in the case of replenishable resources like agriculture, the goal is for communities to estimate resource yields to determine how much to produce in meeting the needs of the current population. Second, in the case of depletable resources like fossil fuels, the goal is for communities to create a cap to preserve these commons for future generations, while allowing sufficient resources for production to meet people’s needs in the present.
Although these objectives are different, they are identical in their comparison of the withdrawal and replenishment rates of resources. This linkage will enable communities to develop a single measure for applying the principles of biological design to social organization. The use of a sustainability rate allows society to create an economic system based, not on the traditional formula of supply and demand, but on an optimal balance between available resources and social well-being.
How would this work? Decisions on the sustainability and provisioning of each resource are made by an independent trust, comprised of local citizens. The trust determines a cap to protect the resource for the future based on the preservation, consumption and regeneration of the shared common. The trust then leases an agreed portion of this resource to the private sector. Businesses extract and process the resources available outside of the cap, allocate and sell them as products, make profits and pay tax to government. Government recirculates these funds to citizens as dividends or subsistence income. And the trust spends its leasing income on the maintenance of protected commons and the replenishment of those depleted.
Imagine this evolutionary process applied in the management of various kinds of commons—crops, lakes, streams, aquifers, oceans, fisheries, wildlife, forests, climate, fossil fuels, mines, manufacturing, computing, digital codes, intellectual property, transportation, infrastructure, solar energy, healthcare, education, arts and similar areas. By grounding the economy in the local sufficiency of resource-sharing communities, the circulation of energy and material goods flows more consciously and freely through society.
Sovereign power and wealth no longer consolidate at the top of a social pyramid. Resource sovereignty is now decentralized among consumers and producers on the ground, generating a new economic relationship with the private sector and government based on fairness, diversity, social cohesion, non-violence, sustainability and well-being.
Taxing the value that we take from an ecosystem—rather than the value added—will enable the ecological society to protect resources, generate production, meet present needs, provide dividends, promote access to goods and services and regenerate the commons. Integrating our lives into this biosystem, in turn, provides the catalyst for a post-liberal social contract and a new multilateral system, making it possible to meet the enormous challenges of climate change, fiscal overstretch, social inequality and global imbalances of power.

James Bernard Quilligan has been an analyst and administrator in the field of international development since 1975. He has served as policy advisor and writer for many international politicians and leaders, including Pierre Trudeau, Fran├žois Mitterand, Edward Heath, Julius Nyerere, Olof Palme, Willy Brandt, Jimmy Carter, and His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan of Jordan.

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This article appears in: 2013 Catalyst - Issue 19