Shifting Perspectives

If the physical evidence is so obvious, just how can mainstream society continue to “misconstrue” the problem? The difficulty is not so much a matter of disputed fact as it is of distorted perspective (Rees 1995a). The “Cartesian dualism” that underlies scientific industrial society effectively sets humanity apart from nature. Conventional economics, for example, treats the economy as a separate, mechanically reversible system, virtually independent of the ecosphere. Yes, there are connections – the “environment” serves the economy as a source for resources and sink for wastes – but these linkages are not critical. Indeed, it is a near doctrinaire position among neoclassical economists that technology can substitute for both resources and environmental functions. As Nobel Laureate economist Robert Solow wrote over 20 years ago: “If it is very easy to substitute other factors for natural resources, then… The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources…” (Solow 1974, 11). Such overweening confidence in technology (i.e., freedom from environmental constraints) has convinced much of the world that the economy can grow forever. We also base our economic analyses and indicators almost entirely on money flows (e.g., GDP per capita is every country’s standard measure of progress). Ironically, then, while market economics determines the allocation and transformation of material resources in society, its dominant analytic models virtually ignore the biophysical basis of economic activity. Any resultant problems can be handled by technological fixes. Human Ecology and Thermodynamic Law There is, of course an emerging, more holistic, alternative world-view. This human ecological perspective sees the economy not in isolation, but rather as an inextricably integrated, completely contained, and wholly dependent subsystem of the ecosphere (Rees 1990, Daly 1992). Moreover, it recognizes that both the economy and the ecosphere are complex self-organizing systems whose behaviour is ultimately governed not by the mechanical assumptions of mainstream analysis but by evolutionary forces, complex systems dynamics, and thermodynamic laws. Indeed, the second law of thermodynamics as applied to open far-from-equilibrium systems provides an important theoretical foundation upon which to rebuild our understanding of economy-environment interaction. Modern formulations of the second law suggest that all highly-ordered complex systems develop and grow (increase their internal structure and order) “at the expense of increasing the disorder at higher levels in the system’s hierarchy” (Schneider and Kay 1994,2). In other words, complex systems maintain their internal order and remain in a dynamic non-equilibrium state through the continuous dissipation of available energy/matter extracted from their host environments. Such self-organizing non-equilibrium systems are called dissipative structures (Nicolis and Prigogine 1977). The human economy is one such highly-ordered, dynamic, far-from-equilibrium dissipative structure. Its internal order and complexity continuously increase as it grows and develops, particularly through the formation of manufactured capital (including the built environment) made from natural capital (resources). However, as noted, the economy is an open growing subsystem of the materially-closed non-growing ecosphere. Beyond a certain point, therefore, the increasing size and complexity of the former can be purchased only through the dissipative disordering of the latter. The second law thus provides both a necessary condition for sustainability and a nearly sufficient explanation of the present ecological crisis. Economic activity is ecologically sustainable only so long as consumption by the economy is less than production in nature. Today’s continuous population and economic growth is therefore necessarily unsustainable. A materially expanding economy by definition appropriates an ever greater share of the fixed (or declining) quantity of usable energy and matter continuously being formed by solar-driven processes in the ecosphere. In structural terms, the expanding human enterprise is positioned to consume the ecosphere from within. Human Ecological Dysfunction This ecological lens enables us to discern that that the so-called “environmental crisis” is really a symptom of profound human ecological dysfunction resulting from deeply-rooted cultural values. Economist Herman Daly (1991, 29) argues that this reality requires a perceptual transition from “empty-world to full-world economics, a shift which he terms “an historical turning point in economic development”. Similarly, Caldwell (1990, 191) argues that “the world is passing through a (sic) historical discontinuity” requiring a reorientation of previous goals and values and a radical reconfiguration of the way people relate to the Earth. In this light, it may well be that new technology is both inevitable and necessary. However, as we shall see, it is unlikely better technology alone will prove sufficient for sustainability.
source: The Built Environment See also XlnkS43D

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