The Viable Economy serialised – About the Environment

We continue the serialisation of our intervention, The Viable Economy, this time with Chapter 10, “About Environment”.  You can download the whole pamphlet as a pdf file, here.
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10) About Environment

The problem

For the unviable economy the environment is just an afterthought. Yet without the environment, there is no basis for its operations, since it is the source of its inputs, and where it puts its wastes (“resources and sinks” is one way of describing this). The invisibility of the environment to conventional economics leads to a naïve, misplaced optimism that technology and markets will come up with solutions to those problems that are increasingly recognised by society. The conventional emphasis on growth (narrowly defined in terms of GDP) leads to various kinds of delusion that the impacts can be resolved, for example by improved energy efficiency, that growth can be disconnected from the flow of materials from extraction to pollution, despite the complete lack of evidence that more than a relative decoupling is possible1. And conventional economics has a further sting in its tail when it tries to convert the ecosystem into monetary value, commodifying the natural world, displacing forest dwellers, and bolstering carbon emissions through trading and financial speculation in them.

It is ever clearer that the global economy (and the UK is nominally the sixth largest national economy2) is destroying the very basis for life on earth by crossing a number of ‘planetary boundaries’3. This influential framework, together with that of ecological footprints4, gives us a basis for defining the limits to the scale of the viable economy.

The viable alternative

In the viable economy the environment is treated as fundamental, as what makes human life, including the economy, possible. Economic activity has to nurture, protect and repair the ecosystem which means favouring ecologically positive and neutral forms of production and distribution, while maintaining human life on a fair basis.

This requires planning to keep the ecological footprint of society and its economy within the available biocapacity (currently exceeded in the UK by some 200 per cent. Rather than the emissions trading scheme currently in use (with its unrealistically low carbon price) we advocate a cap and share system that while controlling the emissions of the big players is also a redistributive mechanism5.

Steady State Manchester's model

Figure “The curved arrow at the bottom indicates the impact of our lifestyles
on both ecosystem and economy, and our responsibility to plan, protect and nurture.” In Place of Growth, pp. 11-12 (Our revision of the Manchester Community Programme’s model). see for a comparison.

Some viable policy ideas

  • Integrated accounting so environmental impacts, linked to economic indicators, appear on balance sheets, annual reports, prospectuses etc. So for each job created, for each pound spent, at, say Airport City, what is the net change in carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, nitrogen pollution, and so on?

  • Action plans for the reduction of hydrocarbon fuel usage within a bioregional cap. The cap could be set on a shadow basis at first, becoming mandatory over say a five year period. This could be complemented by modelling of the impact of a cap and share scheme.

  • A bioregional framework for ecosystem protection and restoration, including evidence-based measures to maximise soil, wetland, bog and woodland carbon sequestration.

  • Focus local investment vehicles (such as the municipal / bioregional investment bonds discussed elsewhere) on the green economy, local food production and processing, energy reduction, human-powered and public transport.

  • Establish the degree to which human waste is used as an asset for ecosystem restoration and horticultural investment: plan to maximise this with public planning and incentives.

  • A recognition of our responsibility for ecosystem damage worldwide: a commitment to reign in harmful processes and to fund restoration.

  • Dis-incentivise private motor transport (except for those who have no reasonable alternative), encouraging walking and cycling and providing clean effective mass transit.

1See our commentary on the New Climate Economy report

3Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F. S., Lambin, E. F., … Foley, J. A. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461(7263), 472–475. doi:10.1038/461472a and for an application see

5See note 32

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