Why economic growth can and inevitably will be green

So, approaching matters once again from yet another point of view, we have Jason Hickel explaining a couple of weeks ago “Why Growth Can’t Be Green.” This article provides yet another example of how the problem is the problem. That is, the way we define problems sets up particular kinds of solutions in advance, and sometimes, as Einstein famously pointed out, problems cannot be solved from within the same conceptual framework that gave rise to them. I’ve expanded on this theme in a number of previous posts, for instance, here.

Hickel takes up the apparent impossibility of aligning economic growth with environmental values. He speaks directly to what he calls the rebound effect, the way that “improvements in resource efficiency drive down prices and cause demand to rise—thus canceling out some of the gains.” But that rebound can happen only as long as the economy remains defined and limited by the alignment of manufactured capital and finance, ignoring the largely unexamined and unconsidered possibility that human, social, and natural capital could be measured well enough to be also aligned with finance.

Hence, as I say, the problem is the problem. Broadening one’s conceptualization of the problem opens up new opportunities that otherwise never come into view.

The Hickel article’s entire focus is then on top-down policy impositions like taxes or a Genuine Progress Index. These presume human, social, and natural capital can only ever exist in dead formations that have to be micromanaged and concretely manipulated, and that efficient markets bringing them to life are inherently and literally unthinkable. (See a short article here for an explanation of the difference between dead and living capital. There’s a lot more where that came from, as is apparent in the previous posts here in this blog.)

The situation could be vastly different than what Hickel imagines. If we could own, buy, and sell products in efficient markets we could reward the production of human, social, and environmental value. In that scenario, when improvements in environmental resource efficiency are obtained, demand for that new environmental value will rise and its price will go down, not the resource’s price.

We ought to be creative enough to figure out how to configure markets so that prices for environmental resources (oil, farmland, metals, etc.) can stay constant or fall without increasing demand for them, as could happen if that demand is counterbalanced and absorbed by rising human, social, and environmental quality capital values.

The question is how to absorb the rebound effect in other forms of capital that grow in demand while holding demand for the natural resource base in check. The vital conceptual distinction is between socialistic centralized planning and control of actual physical entities (people, communities, the environment, and manufactured items), on the one hand, and capitalistic decentralized distributed network effects on abstract transferable representations, on the other. Everyone defaults to the socialist scenario without ever considering there might be a whole other arena in which fruitful possibilities might be imagined.

What if, for instance, we could harness the profit motive to promote growth in genuine human, social, and environmental value? What if we were able to achieve qualitatively meaningful increases in authentic wealth that were economically contingent on reduced natural resource consumption? What if the financial and substantive value profits that could be had meant that resource consumption could be reduced by the same kinds of factors as have been realized in the context of Moore’s Law? What if a human economics of genuine value could actually result in humanity being able to adjust the global thermostat up or down in small increments by efficiently rewarding just the right combinations of policies and practices at the right times and places in the right volumes?

The only way that could ever happen is if people are motivated to do the right thing for the earth and for humanity because it is the right thing for them and their families. They have to be able to own their personal shares of their personal stocks of human, social, and natural capital. They have to be able to profit from investments in their own and others’ shares. They will not act on behalf of the earth and humanity only because it is the right thing to do. There has to be evidence and explanations of how everyone is fairly held accountable to the same standards, and has the same opportunities for profit and loss as anyone else. Then, and only then, it seems, will human, social, and environmental value become communicable in a viral contagion of good will.

Socialism has been conclusively proven unworkable, for people, communities, and the environment, as well as financially. But a human, social, and natural capitalism has hardly even been articulated, much less tried out. How do we make human, social, and natural capital fungible? How might the economy transcend its traditional boundaries and expand itself beyond the existing alignment of manufactured capital and finance?

It’s an incredibly complex proposal, but also seems like such a simple thing. The manufactured capital economy uses the common language of good measurement to improve quality, to simplify management communications, and to lower transaction costs in efficient markets. So what should we do if we want to correct the imbalanced negative impacts on people, communities, and the environment created by the misplaced emphasis on aligning only manufactured capital and financial capital?

As has been repeatedly proposed for years in this blog, maybe we should use the manufactured capital markets as a model and use good measurement to improve the quality of human, social, and environmental capital, to simplify communications and management, to lower transaction costs, and to align the genuine human, social, and environmental value created with financial value in efficient markets.

Of course, grasping that as viable, feasible, and desirable requires understanding that substantively meaningful precision measurement is something quite different from what usually passes for quantification. And that is an entirely different story, though one taken up repeatedly in previous entries in this blog, of course….


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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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