The Future of Eco-Nomics?

Apparently, the word ‘economy’ can be traced back to the Greek word ‘oikonomos’, which roughly translates to ‘one who manages a household’. However, in today’s world, the original scope of ‘economics’ has expand way beyond the ‘household’, such that the implications of ‘eco-nomics’ can no longer be constrained to financial systems, as its working now encompasses and affects the entire ecosystem of planet Earth.

So can money alone still make the world go around?

While the adage is pithy summation of cause and effect, it is also a crude generalisation of the evolving complexity of human society. For even within the simplification of the Limit to Growth (LTG) model previously discussed, it was clear that there are many interacting factors that have influenced the evolution of the world we now live in and will undoubtedly continue to affect the world for future generations. Therefore, this section of discussions will consider the wider scope of ‘eco-nomics’ as possibly being suggested in a report by the ‘Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations (OMC-FG)’, although it should be recognised that this report is essentially related to longer term issues, in general, which might affect future generations. However, the first paragraph of the executive summary gives the direction of the debate to follow:

“The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations focuses on the increasing short-termism of modern politics and our collective inability to break the gridlock which undermines attempts to address the biggest challenges that will shape our future. In ‘Now for the Long Term’, we urge decision-makers to overcome their pressing daily preoccupations to tackle problems that will determine the lives of today’s and tomorrow’s generations.”

This report follows the format of describing the scope of the problem space and then tries to make recommendations as to how these problems might be addressed. However, it is far from clear as to whether any of the recommendations would be realistically achievable or even effective in the timescales suggested by the LTG model. This said, the report does expand the description of the problem space, as initially defined by the LTG model, and forwards possible steps that might be taken to address the perceived problems. The report starts by summarising its scope in terms of five major areas in the form of questions:

  • Society: How can growth and development be made more sustainable and inclusive?
  • Resources: How can food, energy, water and biodiversity be made more secure?
  • Health: How can public health infrastructure and processes respond to the needs of all?
  • Geopolitics: How can power transitions be the basis for new forms of collaboration?
  • Governance: How can businesses, institutions and governments contribute to more inclusive and sustainable growth?

In a sense, the bullets above help define the problems to be addressed, while the bullets below are more representative of the barriers or challenges to be overcome before these problems might even begin to be addressed:

  • Institutions: Too many have struggled to adapt to today’s hyper-connected world.
  • Time: Short-termism directs political and business cycles, despite compelling exceptions.
  • Political Trust: Politics has not adapted to new methods or members.
  • Growing Complexity: Problems can escalate much more rapidly than they can be solved.
  • Cultural Biases: Globalisation can amplify cultural differences and exclude key voices.

The report then continues towards a generalisation of its recommendations based on five ‘principles’ that it describes as a ‘long-term agenda’ , which it is presumably hoped will overcome, not only the barriers to progress, but the pressing problems now facing the world. For the purpose of this outline, these principles are summarised as follows:

  1. Creative Coalitions: Comprising countries, companies and cities to counteract climate change and provide an early warning system that promotes better understanding of common threats amongst governments, corporate and individual users along with a city-based networks to fight the rise of non-communicable diseases.

  2. Innovative Institutions: These institutions need to a) invest and operate across longer-term horizons, b) incorporate clauses into publicly funded innovation to ensure regular review of accomplishments and mandates, c) build on initiatives that optimise new forms of participation and transparency, d) improve the reliability and availability of statistics, e) address tax abuse and avoidance.

  3. Revalue the Future: Incentives should reduce bias against future generations by a) ensuring companies and financial systems give greater priority to long term goals, not just next financial report,  b) future generations should not be discounted, c) perverse subsidies on hydrocarbons and agriculture should be removed and redirected to support the poor, d) create an index to track the effectiveness of countries, companies and international institutions on longer term issues.

  4. Invest in Younger Generations: Greater attention has to be given to promoting a more inclusive and empowered society, particularly for younger generations, a) break the inter-generational cycle of poverty through social protection measures, b) countries should invest in youth guarantees to address unemployment and underemployment.

  5. Establish a Common Understanding: The ability to address today’s global challenges is undermined by the absence of a collective vision for society, e.g. an updated set of shared global values around which a unified and enduring pathway for society can be built.

To be perfectly honest, the list above appear to be another wish-list rather than being representative of a realistic set of goals, which may have to be achieved in a relatively short timeframe. For, based on the trend forecast of the ‘LTG model’, there appears to be little to no time left to overcome the ‘barriers’ to these ‘recommendations’, let alone implement them in any effective way, such that they might actually start to address the problems at hand. There is also  concern that the OMC-FG report does not really account for the more fundamental role of human nature in the evolutionary process, which has led us to the current crisis. This said, it is obviously too early to give up all hope that some other alternative outcome might be realised. Therefore the following set of discussions will try, at least, to outline the salient issues raised in the OMC-FG report, while the full report can be read in full via the link provided above and the wider research of the Oxford Martin School access via the previous link. 

It is highlighted that some of the comments raised against the trends and challenges within the OMC-FG report may seem unfair, when reviewed independently of the LTG model. For it would seem that its purpose and recommendations are orientated towards a much longer timeframe. However, this does beg the question:

Do we really understand the scope of the problems and timeframe for solutions?

It would seem that either the LTG model is hopelessly pessimistic or the OMC-FG report is hopelessly optimistic in the timeframe available to address the problems on which both appear to generally agree. However, this aspect will be taken up in the ‘Concluding Commentary discussion, while another section will address the wider issues associated with 'Population & Resources'.